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Thousands in the North Country rally to save Fort Drum jobs

Julia Botero

Several thousand Fort Drum backers sent a loud message to the Pentagon Friday. They said the Army base near Watertown should be spared from deep cuts as the military downsizes after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Army brass toured Fort Drum and the region as they near the end of a review of 30 installations to determine where to cut.

North Country residents packed the Jefferson Community College gym for a rally, where many say protecting Fort Drum is also protecting their livelihoods.

It was like a big game was about to begin in the JCC gymnasium. The bleachers were filled with people in yellow shirts cheering and holding huge foam fingers. Cheerleaders shake their pompoms. A net filled with balloons hang from the ceiling.

“One two, three, four, three four!” the crowd chants.

No one at the rally is in uniform. These are residents of Watertown, Le Ray, Evans Mills and other small towns that surround the base. And the team they’re rooting for – Fort Drum.  The Army marching band snakes around the room.  The balloons fall to the floor.

Everyone is here to prevent cuts at Fort Drum.

The Army is in the midst of deciding where to cut 70,000 troops by 2017. Fort Drum has been asked to prepare for the loss of 16,000 Army jobs – mostly uniformed, but some civilian, too.

Officials say that would result in a $1 billion economic loss to the community. 

That means one thing to Delantay Anderson.

“We’d lose our jobs. They’d probably lay us off,” said Anderson.

Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News
A listening session on the future of Fort Drum drew hundreds of people to Jefferson Community College in Watertown Friday

Anderson works in housekeeping at Samaritan Hospital in Watertown. Fort Drum is unusual among large Army bases in that it doesn’t have a hospital on post.

“They did a big lay off last year and they said they’d lay a lot of us off probably again, too.”

Yet, there is still a festive atmosphere at the rally. There is a tattoo crew. They’re pressing wet towels to people’s arms and checks and applying “I love Fort Drum” tattoos. And that’s been the message of this lobbying effort at the military: the community loves Fort Drum. It’s on billboards and signs around Watertown.

Rebecca Rallie has balloons tied to her wrist. She  is a teacher and cheerleading coach at the Indian River School District.

“A lot of my students and a lot of my athletes are military dependent. At least 65 percent of the school is, so it would make a huge impact and a very negative one.”

Rallie isn’t from a military family but she went to school in Indian River years ago. She’s seen how Fort Drum’s growth has transformed the area and the school.

“It changed everything. The school has grown immensely. The people I meet now, they’re more multicultural. Overall, it’s become a better place to be. “

Debbie Cavallario says she remembers how small Watertown felt before Fort Drum. She says the area is more diverse now.

“And I really consider that one of the biggest blessings Fort Drum has brought to us. It has brought America to this small town of Watertown,” said Cavallario.

Kids are going crazy popping the balloons on the floor as people move onto the official part of the night – the public hearing with Pentagon officials. North Country elected leaders including Rep. Elise Stefanik, state Sen. Pattie Richie and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, and many local officials stressed the base’s importance to the local economy. 

Some have criticized the notion of using the military for economic development. The Green Party candidate in last fall’s congressional race even made that an issue in last falls’ congressional race.  

James Shimolt is a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division and now works as a contractor on the post and he is a Fort Drum booster. But he says it would be better for the region to not rely so heavily on Fort Drum economically.

“Clearly we all wish that there were different types of industry up here. We have Airbrake. That employs a few hundred people and we still what -- at least  one paper mill. But unfortunately the community does rely on Fort Drum and that’s just the way it is,” said Shimolt.

After two hours of testimony local radio personality Diane Chase rose from her seat and addressed the Pentagon and Fort Drum officials on stage.

“These solders are our families, their families are our families. We are families, sirs. You don’t mess with us.”

The crowd went wild.