05/19/05 — BRAC work not over, officials say

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BRAC work not over, officials say

By Turner Walston
Published in News on May 19, 2005 1:45 PM

Even though Seymour Johnson Air Force Base got good news from the Department of Defense Friday, local officials say their work to make sure the base stays safe is not over.

"Right now, we're just kind of sitting tight," said Jimmie Edmundson, chairman of the Military Affairs Committee of the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce.

The Base Realignment and Closure commission will review the DOD's recommendations over the summer, hold public hearings across the country and present a final recommendation to Congress in September. Until then, local officials say, the campaign to protect the base must go on.

"You always feel better when you get it officially," said Troy Pate, co-chairman of the state Advisory Commission on Military Affairs and the local chairman of the Seymour Support Council. "But this is the first step in a process, and there's three more things that have got to happen before we're home-free."

Those steps include the commission's review of the recommendations, President George Bush's approval of the list and the House and Senate's final OK.

"You have to monitor that intermediate window between the recommendations and when they send the actual list to the president," said Leigh McNairy, a special assistant for military issues for Gov. Mike Easley.

A lot can happen between now and then, McNairy said. During a round of base closings in 1993, squadrons of F/A-18 Hornet fighters were slated to move from Florida to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point. By the time the final vote was taken, the jets and their hundreds of support personnel were sent to Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina.

"That's evidence of how the process is fluid," McNairy said.

Defense officials said last week this round of base closings would save $48.8 billion over 20 years by streamlining services and promoting cooperation across the military, while also shutting down bases deemed inefficient.

The Pentagon's recommendations include moving the Army Forces Command and the Headquarters U.S. Army Reserve Command to Fort Bragg, as well as adding a brigade to the Bragg-based 82nd Airborne Division. But the state would lose personnel at Pope Air Force Base and a Bragg-based Special Forces group.

In all, the state would lose 568 military positions and gain 307 civilian positions out of some 135,000 jobs directly related to the military. Seymour Johnson was the state's big winner, with 362 military and civilians gained at the Air Force base.

"We still feel good about it," Pate said, "But there's always a possibility that things can change, and we have to be aware of that. That's why we're monitoring things."

"We still have all of the plans in place that we had if we were on the re-alignment list, and we're just sitting on those," Edmundson said. "Hopefully, we'll never have to take them out of the box."

Adding the Army Forces Command to Fort Bragg would bring a four-star general to the base, something that adds to the military importance of an area, McNairy noted.

That move has already led to protest from Georgia officials. Fort McPherson outside Atlanta is the command's current home. It would close under the Pentagon's recommendations, with many of its personnel moving to Fort Bragg.

"We're prepared to go before the BRAC commission in regional hearings and make the case for why they made a mistake," said Fred Bryant of the Georgia Military Affairs Coordinating Committee.

But even as efforts continue to save jobs and bases, officials in both states said they expect most of the recommendations to be approved. In previous rounds of base closings, commissions have changed only about 15 percent of what the Pentagon proposed.

Tom Salter, a former Army battalion commander who is chairman of a foundation to save McPherson, said the chance of saving the installations is "certainly an uphill battle."

"We will continue to challenge it," he said.

Still others hope to push forward changes as recommended. "I think the way that they've done this, there are a lot of things that are intermingled," Edmundson said. "If you take a piece of the puzzle out, then it changes the whole puzzle."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.