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Community comes out to support Fort Drum as Army reorganizes

Joanna Richards

About 200 community members turned up in a school auditorium in Watertown Thursday night in a showing of regional support for Fort Drum. The event was billed as a “listening session” for the Army, to inform a process of personnel cutbacks and reorganization currently affecting military installations around the country.  

Leaders in local government, education, business, transportation, housing, health care and more turned out at Case Middle School to bolster the community's case for maintaining strong troop levels at Fort Drum.

The post stands to lose up to 8,000 troops – or gain as many as 3,000 – in the upcoming Army reorganization. The changes come as the Army reduces its overall troop strength as more than a decade of war winds down.

Real estate developer Joe Girardi's comments were typical. He’s vice-president of the Syracuse-based COR Development Company, which has brought businesses like Target, Kohl's and Panera to the Watertown area, and is also behind a big new housing project here.

“We were immediately so impressed with the synergistic relationship between the Watertown community and the fort that we began to invest in the community and to do work here,” Gerardi said.

Speaker after speaker emphasized that civilian support for the post has shown up in more than just patriotic displays. The huge expansion of Fort Drum after September 11 required careful and effective planning by the region's leaders to accommodate more traffic, more school children, more patients at local hospitals and rapid housing development.

Retired Colonel Terrence Roche commanded Fort Drum for two years in the mid-1980s, back when it hosted just 1,000 soldiers and around 1,000 civilian workers. In retirement, he helped facilitate the post's development, heading up the precursor to the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, which helps coordinate planning efforts between the post and the civilian community.

Roche told Army officials that community support has been evident since the earliest days of the post's expansion.

“More than 650 volunteers showed up and volunteered on 15 different task forces to make all this happen,” he said. “They brought their concerns, they brought their ideas, they brought their passion to the table, and made this work.”

Local impacts

While most speakers focused on the positive nature of the relationship, one sounded a more ominous note. Kevin Jordan is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County, and a board member of the liaison organization. He highlighted an issue other speakers had avoided – the negative impact on the region's economy if Fort Drum troop levels shrink.

“The Army has to understand what the impact is, if you make the wrong decision,” Jordan said. “We saw an opportunity as troop strength has grown, we've made significant investment, and with that investment was a responsibility that this community took up. And both military and community have seen the benefits of that over time. We don't want to reverse that.”

More than 70 people signed up to speak, but after more than three hours, organizers encouraged those who hadn't had a chance at the mic to submit their comments in writing instead.

Afterward, Major General Stephen Townsend, commander of the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum, said the level of community support blew him away.

“This is my third tour here, and I knew that this community had a special relationship with the post, but I never sat in an auditorium full of the local citizens who had three hours to tell the Army how much they appreciated the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum,” he said.

Civilian medical services

Colonel Thomas O'Donaghue was the Army's overall representative at the session. He specializes in troop stationing issues. Out of about five similar listening sessions he'd been to in the past month, he said the Fort Drum session was a standout for community support.

O'Donaghue said he’s also taken note of the different model for health care for soldiers and their families at the post. Most installations have their own hospital, but Fort Drum soldiers and their families access care at nearby civilian facilities, which have coordinated to ramp up quality and capacity to meet that need.

“Our weapons system is ultimately the soldier,” O'Donoghue said. “And one of the big drivers of the cost of our, you know, primary weapons system, is health care for soldiers, health care for families. And it looks like here there's a model that's different than the traditional, build a big Army hospital and do that sort of thing. I know people are going to look at, as far as, you know, does it deliver better health care at lower costs?”

O'Donaghue said the Army will take such community-related factors into account, along with military strategic needs, as it moves forward with its cutbacks and reorganization.

Reporting by the Innovation Trail is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For more, visit innovationtrail.org.