Efforts made to save area bases

By Greg Gelpi

With waning political pull, Georgia military bases, government agencies and civic groups are rallying to save state military installations from closing.

The Save Fort McPherson/Fort Gillem Foundation formed to stave off the possibility of closings and is fighting to get the word out about the impact of the bases.

Political muscle, indispensable missions and a bit of luck have helped Georgia escape each time the Pentagon has set out to cut costs by mothballing some of the nation's military bases.

However, as another round of closures nears in 2005, state officials have less clout than they once did and, with a mandate from the secretary of defense that as much as 25 percent of the infrastructure must go, some bases once perceived as untouchable could face the wrecking ball.

The U.S. Department of Defense issued the criteria for closing and restructuring military bases Monday. The criteria will help the department compile of list of bases to be affected by a 2005 round of base closings.

The Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list could include any base, Fred Bryant, the executive director of the foundation said. Bryant retired from Fort McPherson in 1999 as the senior legal adviser to the Third U.S. Army after 30 years of service and now finds himself in a battle to keep the base open.

"There's no one on the list yet, but everyone is fair game," he said. "I will say this if we do nothing?we will have a tough row to hoe."

The foundation has been meeting with various groups around Forest Park's Fort Gillem and Atlanta's Fort McPherson in hopes of informing them of the importance of the bases and collecting support for the installations.

"We want to be sure that the full story of what are current forces and force capacity is told," Bryant said.

Part of the foundation's campaign includes fundraising so that it can fund a study into the impact of closing either base.

As of 2001, the bases pumped more than $577 million into the local economy, according to Public Affairs Officer Ron Morton. The two bases also employed more than 8,400, including about 4,800 civilians.

Three major construction projects could keep Fort Gillem off the BRAC list as the base evolves to fit the needs of the military.

"It keeps pace with the modern Army," Morton said.

The headquarters for the 56th Ordnance Battalion, an Army Reserve Center and a new facility for the Army's Criminal Investigation Forensics Lab are being constructed at Fort Gillem, he said. The crime lab is the only one in the Army and is the only crime lab for the defense department. The lab, which is currently housed in 1940s era warehouses at the fort, was used to analyze some of the evidence recovered from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks.

Among the considerations for base closures are how the closure would affect the local community as well as how unique the missions of the base are.

Although other branches of the military have crime labs, none have a crime lab with the capabilities and capacity as the one at Fort Gillem, Morton said.

Fort Gillem is home to the First Army and 89 units, and Fort McPherson houses the U.S. Army Forces Command and three other major commands.

The bases could use all the help they can get as Georgia's political pull is slipping.

"I think Georgia has been insulated in the past to a degree, and we'd be foolish to think the services didn't look at that," said Gen. Richard Goddard, former commander of Robins Air Force Base.

Word has spread from Capitol Hill to statehouses across the country that when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission submits its list of proposed closures in 2005, it will be the mother of them all.

Pentagon officials insist no decisions have been made.

Former Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat used his across-the-aisle clout to help keep the state's bases open and viable. Gone too is Newt Gingrich, the speaker of the House during the last round of closures in 1995.

Carl Vinson ruled the Armed Services Committee through the 1950s, and former Georgia Sens. Richard Russell and Paul Coverdell also wielded plenty of clout when it came to protecting bases through the years.

Georgia's current congressional delegation still has plenty of expertise, even if not the titles or experience of some predecessors. Jack Kingston is the fifth-ranking Republican in the House and one of 13 lawmakers who oversee the congressional check-writing process. Saxby Chambliss, while only a freshman, sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee after spending several years on the same panel in the House.

Chambliss says he feels no extra pressure because the state has fended off previous BRAC rounds.

The BRAC commission is supposed to operate free from political pressure, although some are skeptical about whether that has always been the case. With a quarter of all bases on the line this time, it seems less likely that a powerful lawmaker could pick up the phone and get his base scratched off the list. Instead, the goal is to never get on it.

The challenge for state officials and community booster groups is to prove the American military can't get by without what their base has to offer and where it's being offered.

In the previous three BRAC rounds, 85 percent of the bases listed on the original closure draft ended up closing. Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta was one of the exceptions in 1995. With a new unique mission training search and rescue operations, it's viewed as one of Georgia's safer bets to stay open this time.

When Sen. Zell Miller was governor, he organized the Georgia Military Affairs Coordinating Committee to develop a pre-emptive strike against the last BRAC round. The panel's focus shifted to economic development for a while, but now its overriding mission is to ensure the state's 13 bases have the little things they need to make their best case for survival.

Because it's next to impossible to guess exactly which Georgia bases are at risk, state officials are assuming they all are. Hurt says past closure rounds gobbled up all the "low-hanging fruit," so only the most difficult decisions are left. Surprises are inevitable.

"I think Georgia has a lot to offer the Department of Defense ? good weather, good quality of life, good cost of living, varied training terrain," said Gen. Philip Y. Browning Jr., executive director of the Coordinating Committee. "I don't think they'll say, ?Georgia has never lost anything so we'll take one out of Georgia."'

The combined complex housing Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield is the largest Army installation east of the Mississippi River, and its coastal location makes it an unlikely closure candidate. Still, Fort Stewart officials are scrambling to close Highway 144 to traffic to avoid the perception that it is interfering with training missions.

Location also favors King's Bay, which is the Atlantic headquarters for the Trident II ballistic missile submarines. It's hard to imagine the subs going somewhere else on the East Coast, but in the unlikely event the Navy decides it can get by with only a Pacific presence, they could be moved to Washington State.

More vulnerable could be Fort Gordon, whose intelligence training operation is perceived as critical, even if its Augusta location seems less so. Same for the U.S. Army Forces Command, which could conceivably be moved out of Atlanta as part of a broader realignment. Such a move would almost certainly mean the loss of Fort McPherson, stripping the city of an Army presence that dates back to 1867.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.