Georgia ready to defend against BRAC

By Ed Brock

The battle plans have been set and the defenders of Georgia's military bases say they are ready to defend those bases from closing.

"I think we have developed a vigorous challenge," said Tom Salter, head of the Save Forts McPherson/Gillem Foundation, Inc.

Fort Gillem and its parent installation, Fort McPherson in Atlanta, were included on the Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure list released on May 13. The BRAC Commission is currently reviewing the list, and, if five commissioners vote to do so, individual installations can still be removed from the list.

Once it goes to President Bush by early September, the list can only be accepted or rejected as a whole.

This morning four of the commissioners, Phillip Coyle, Samuel K. Skinner, retired Adm. Harold Gehman and James Bilbray will hold a regional hearing in the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center in Atlanta. At that hearing they will listen to arguments from representatives from Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee on why the bases listed for closure in those states should be saved.

Salter said he had been working with local officials to supply material to retired Army Gen. Phil Browning, executive director of the Georgia Military Affairs Coordinating Committee and the man who will be making most of the argument for keeping the forts.

Forest Park Mayor Chuck Hall and Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer have submitted information in writing for Browning's presentation.

"I just very briefly outlined what the base means to the community," Hall said.

Browning will have two hours to make his presentation, Salter said, about half an hour on each Army fort and another hour on the Naval Air Station in Marietta and Navy Supply Corps School in Athens that are also slated for closing.

The commissioners will then move on to hear from the Alabama and Tennessee delegations.

"It's going to be an extremely tight schedule. I would liken it to a Supreme Court hearing where you have a set amount of time and then a little red buzzer goes off," Salter said. "It's our understanding that these BRAC commissioners will expect the time frames to be observed very strictly."

Members of the general public will not have time to speak and Salter said the commissioners are more concerned with the military value of the bases and not the economic impact closing them would have. Still, Salter said members of his foundation will be handing out tastefully done T-shirts to whoever attends the hearing with slogans like "Grow us, don't close us" to silently demonstrate the community support for the forts.

As for the military value of the forts, Salter said the fact that they enjoy the infrastructure of Atlanta, with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, interstate and rail systems are a major plus. Asking the units based at the fort to move somewhere with less infrastructure would place "an intangible burden" on them as they try to fulfill their missions.

"We have as much to offer the military as they have to offer us," Salter said. "Nevertheless we want to be grown, not closed."

U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Georgia, will have a few minutes to address the commissioners before Browning's presentation.

"We remain confident and hopeful, and we're prayerful," Scott said.

Scott said he hopes to convince the commissioners that closing the bases would be a "tragic blow" to national defense.

"And especially I will remind them that we're not at peace, we're at war, and some of these plans to put bases on the list were made before 9/11," Scott said.

Scott also cited geography, their closeness to Atlanta, as the forts' biggest strength. He said the Department of Defense had not given accurate information to the commission regarding the cost of moving the units based at the forts and there was no mention on the current list about the millions of dollars in new construction being done on Fort Gillem.

"We're building a whole new city there," Scott said.

Bilbray, visited Fort Gillem two weeks ago and said there may be a very good chance it could get off the list.

Part of the reason he said that was a belief that the Defense Department may have underestimated the cost of the environmental cleanup.

"We have new numbers that are contradictory to what the Pentagon gave us. That will be looked at," Bilbray said. "Fort Gillem has an excellent chance of getting off the list."

Fort McPherson and Fort Gillem are home to headquarters for the U.S. Army Forces Command, 3rd U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserve Command. Scott said Atlanta would be vulnerable to terrorist attacks if the bases were closed.

Fort McPherson is one of the nation's oldest bases, in use since the 1880s. Combined with Fort Gillem, it is Atlanta's seventh largest employer, with a civilian and military employment of 4,141 people.

Losing the forts could drain about $670 million a year from the local economy, Scott said.

"That alone is worth the fight," Scott said.