The new secretary of the U.S. Army made his first visit to Fort Drum Wednesday. Mark Esper, who's four months into his tenure, says he's making the rounds through the Army's bases to reacquaint himself with the service and develop his own assessments. He praised the 10th Mountain Division during the tour.
"They're very busy. They're focused on my top priority, which is readiness," Esper said. "The chance to see this school that we just walked through now with regards to the mountain warfare capabilities that they have reminds me that not only are they good soldiers in their own capability, but also bring these special niche capabilities as well that are important to the Army."
Esper says there are no plans at the present time to grow Fort Drum, but he says the base is being considered for an Army Security Force Assistance Brigade unit. The Army is setting up six of these units, which are charged with advising and assisting partner nations in the development of their security forces. In addition, North Country Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Willsboro) says she's fighting for Fort Drum to be selected as a missile defense site to protect the country against incoming ballistic missiles.
"We're continuing to communicate with the Missile Defense Agency that we believe - and many of my colleagues in New York - that Fort Drum is uniquely position in terms of the workforce, in terms of the installation capabilities and in terms of the technical capabilities in terms of protecting the entire continental U.S.," Stefanik said.
Fort Drum is a finalist for the missile defense site. Stefanik says a decision on where it will be built will be released later this year.
During her visit, Stefanik did not offer an opinion of President Donald Trump's decision to fire VA Director David Shulkin. The Republican representative says the president has the right to appoint his own cabinet.
Shulkin told NPR that he had been opposing an effort by some in the Trump administration to privatize the VA. Stefanik says she is also against privatization, but she wants to help fix what she calls the broken VA health care system for veterans like those in her district.
"Many of those veterans have to travel three hours to go to Syracuse or Albany in terms of certain types of procedures at those veteran medical centers. That's of concern to me," Stefanik said. "I think we should have more flexibility so they can seek care in their own communities. I think we need to reform the VA and fix it."
Esper declined to comment on Shulkin's dismissal, only saying the VA should take care of veterans as efficiently and effectively as possible.