Fighting to Save Military Bases

It’s the biggest employer in the county, a storied Army communications center whose vital high-tech work and unique place in the nation’s military arsenal have helped it survive Pentagon cuts before.

Now, Fort Monmouth is in for another battle.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld delivered the news Friday that everyone here had been fearing: the Pentagon’s recommendation that Fort Monmouth be closed along with 32 other major installations as part of a plan to save billions of dollars and make the military more modern.

The reaction to the announcement by the communities affected – from New Jersey to California, Wisconsin to Texas – was first disappointment, then determination to fight for their livelihoods.

“It hurts,” said Eatontown Mayor Gerry Tarantolo. “It’s a major disappointment. I think it’s a poor decision. But obviously, this is just the beginning of the fight.”

Long a hub of communications and electronics research-and-development functions, Fort Monmouth is the home of the Army’s Communications and Electronics Command.

The installation contributes $3 billion to the local and state economies; its closing would put about 6,000 people out of work, deal a blow to area businesses and close the book on a base that’s been part of the community since 1917.

“I can’t imagine this area without Fort Monmouth,” said Tariq Mujahid, 49, of Eatontown, who grew up on the base as the son of a soldier. “I guess the Pentagon’s gotta’ do what they gotta’ do, but it’s sad.”

About 500 people _ many of them base employees _ turned out at Monmouth Regional High School in Tinton Falls for a rally organized by the Save Our Fort Committee, co-chaired by Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt.

“I’m going to be honest with you. We’ve got a hell of a fight on our hands,” said Pallone, D-N.J.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who also attended, said keeping Fort Monmouth was about more than preserving jobs. Systems developed there help American soldiers in Iraq detect roadside bombs and spy on enemy movements at night, he said.

“This is an S.O.S. _ save our soldiers,” he said. “That’s what this is about.”

Nancy Lyman, 52, of Brick, a 25-year Fort Monmouth employee who works as an equipment specialist, sat in the crowd alongside husband Patrick Lyman, 50, who also works on the base.

She struck a patriotic tone when asked if she was worried about her future.

“My opinion is whatever’s best for the country is what we’ll do,” she said. “Nobody ever wants their base to be the one impacted, but we have to do what’s right for the soldiers.”

The rallying cries were just as strong elsewhere in the country.

South Dakota was shocked to hear that it could lose its second-biggest employer, the venerable Ellsworth Air Force Base, after community leaders spent 10 years and $2 million to preserve it and its 3,852 workers.

During the Cold War, Ellsworth played a major role in the all-out effort to defeat the former Soviet Union by maintaining nuclear warheads in the ground and in the air. Today its only mission is hosting roughly half the nation’s B-1B fleet of the long-range bombers, and the military said it would rather move the bombers to the Texas base where the rest of the fleet is housed.

“This is the first inning of an extra-inning game,” promised Pat McElgunn, of the Rapid City Area Chamber of Commerce.

The proposed list of bases now goes to a federal commission, which must report by Sept. 8, and then on to Congress and President Bush.

While the Pentagon plan calls for a net loss of 29,005 military and civilian jobs at domestic installations, some places stand to gain as positions at closed bases shift to posts that survive.

President Bush’s home state of Texas could gain more than 9,000 military jobs even while losing four major installations and several smaller ones, and Florida, where the president’s brother is governor, would add 2,575 jobs overall while losing none of its bases.

North Dakota and Illinois got some good news and some bad news: bases would stay open but jobs would be lost.

Grand Forks, N.D., learned that its air base wouldn’t close but the area would lose nearly 5,000 jobs under the shakeup. The Pentagon also wants to send the Grand Forks Air Force Base’s KC-135 refueling tankers elsewhere.

At the Street Cafe and Pit Stop Bar in Emerado, a town of about 500 just down the road from the base, owner Cheryl Meagher said it wouldn’t make sense to transfer so many personnel.

“If we’re going to lose that many people, I don’t see how that’s different from closing the base,” she said. “You don’t run a business that way. I couldn’t run my business that way.”

Illinois wouldn’t lose any bases but the state would see nearly 2,700 jobs go by the wayside. That includes nearly 1,300 jobs at the Rock Island Arsenal along the Mississippi River.

For Rock Island Mayor Mark Schwiebert, the proposed cuts at the arsenal were bittersweet after weeks of rumblings that it could be marked for closure.

“It’s kind of like losing your hand as opposed to losing your whole arm. But it’s hard to be grateful for losing your hand,” Schwiebert said.


Associated Press writers Chet Brokaw at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., Dave Kolpack in Grand Forks, N.D., and Todd Dvorak in Rock Island, Ill., contributed to this report.

¬© 2005 The Associated Press