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The Virginian-Pilot May 22, 2005

Two local Army forts could end up under Navy and Air Force control

By Louis Hansen Aand Kate Wiltrout

Close venerable Fort Monroe. Put the Air Force in charge of the Army’s Fort Eustis. And that picturesque little Army base in Virginia Beach? Turn it, Fort Story, over to the Navy.

Local Army leaders could be forgiven for feeling like they’re being chased out of Hampton Roads by new Department of Defense recommendations that aim for greater efficiency and cooperation among the military’s branches.

The Defense Department is looking to save nearly $2.3 billion over 20 years just by centralizing property management at about dozen bases nationwide. Locally, the region could lose 550 jobs under the proposed rearrangements. It’s part of a plan to close unneeded bases and realign others.

For the moment, however, all this has local military brass wondering what’s to come.

“We have not even made contact with the Navy” to discuss the changes, said Lt. Col. Wesley Rehorn , Fort Story’s garrison commander.

Added Col. Ronnie T. Ellis, garrison commander at Fort Eustis, “I really can’t tell you how it would look.”

Even Navy and Air Force officials are puzzled, saying it is too early to know how the unusual arrangement would work.

But there’s a longer view if the proposals unveiled May 13 become reality after a long review by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission.

While the changes mean the Army would become tenants on their own bases and have fewer troops in Hampton Roads, they also may cement Fort Story’s key role in training elite forces throughout the East Coast. And Fort Eustis could evolve into a mecca of military planners and problem solvers.

Fort Story

Rehorn thinks that turning the keys over to the Navy would be more symbolic than anything else.

“The function at Fort Story doesn’t change,” he said. “The reason the Army is at Fort Story doesn’t change.”

In fact, the switch in base management only seems to acknowledge its value as a training venue for special forces.

That’s probably what kept Fort Story off the base closure list, said Chris Hellman, a military policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.

“You’re talking about the top tier,” Hellman said. “If the military thinks what it’s doing there can’t be done anywhere else, then they’re not going to want to leave.”

The 1,400-acre fort has about 2,300 military and civilian employees and residents. With about 900 troops, the largest unit is the 11th Transportation Battalion. Another Army unit makes seawater drinkable. The base is also home to a Navy outfit that trains sailors in explosives and a Marine amphibious reconnaissance school.

But perhaps its most important assets are natural: the beaches, bunkers, water and air space routinely used by Navy SEALs, Army special forces and elite paratroopers who practice high-altitude jumps.

Rehorn estimated that 75 percent of the training on the base is done by the Navy, with SEAL units and explosive ordnance disposal squads often coming from Little Creek or Dam Neck, a Navy annex in Virginia Beach.

“You cannot find training ground like this anywhere on the East Coast,” he said.

Lt. Cmdr. Bob Mehal , a spokesman for the Navy’s Mid-Atlantic Region , thinks if Fort Story does change management, it would fall under the purview of Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base.

“Due to similarity in missions, it would make good sense that Little Creek would oversee Fort Story as an annex,” he said.

The command that oversees the SEALs – Naval Special Warfare Group Two from Little Creek – is constructing a close quarters combat facility at Fort Story, with plans for three additional training buildings there, Little Creek spokesman Scott Mohr said .

Some military watchers agree that the switch in base operations will amount to little more than a change of landlords.

It’s “just a real estate deal,” said John S. Pike, director of Global Security.org.

He said the realignment of Fort Story and Fort Eustis could simply mean the Navy and Air Force handle the mundane details of maintaining a base – from hauling garbage to fixing roofs – while the Army goes about its business.

Fort Eustis

Operations at Fort Eustis, which sits on 8,300 acres along the James River, would shift from training to planning.

The base now buzzes with young soldiers learning specialized skills , ranging from aircraft maintenance to truck driving, after basic training. About 12,000 service members rotate through the base each year, with instruction lasting from a few weeks to nearly a year.

The base also is home to the 7th Transportation Group, which has been heavily involved in running convoys in Iraq. About one-quarter of the group’s 4,000 soldiers there now.

Ellis said the character of the base would be much different under the realignment. Training would be reduced, while management and Army wide strategic work would grow.

That’s because the base stands to gain the training and doctrine command from 180-year-old Fort Monroe, which has been targeted for closure.

Eustis also would become home to the units that manage Army installations along the East Coast. Those units are now based at Fort Monroe and Fort McPherson, Ga.

But on the other side of the ledger, nearly 85 percent of the training now conducted at Fort Eustis would be transferred to Fort Lee and Fort Rucker in Alabama under realignment.

As more details are revealed, commanders at both Fort Story and Fort Eustis will create a plan to adjust to the new era of military transformation, as it’s called.

“I see us as a very viable Army installation,” Ellis said, “supporting our national security.”


Copyright 2005, The Virginian-Pilot