Five questions for Ike McLeese on Base Realignment and Closure
Ike McLeese, president and CEO of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce (GCCC), is committed to protecting central South Carolina's military bases in the next round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). But keeping those bases in the Midlands is as much a responsibility of the surrounding communities is it is any appointed-panel tasked with the same, he says.
The next round of BRAC could begin in 2015, perhaps earlier says McLeese, a member of the executive committee of the S.C. Military Base Task Force who also serves as civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army. And though S.C. is positioned as well as any state can be – with sterling bases, good missions, and supportive communities – we can't assume we won't lose in the new round.
According to McLeese, The GCCC took the lead in preparing for BRAC 2005, particularly in support of Ft. Jackson and McEntire Joint National Guard Base.
Additionally, the GCCC "reached out" to the other regional military communities – Sumter, Charleston, and Beaufort – in an effort to bring the strongest base-advocacy initiative to the forefront of the S.C. legislature. "They [state government] formed a task force to look at military issues – especially this major industry that was potentially threatened – and this enabled us to navigate fairly successfully through BRAC '05," says McLeese. "Charleston had a few losses. Beaufort got through it okay. And Shaw, McEntire, and Ft. Jackson were big winners."
What about the forthcoming BRAC? The S.C. Military Base Task Force – which McLeese serves on and is chaired by Comptroller General (and S.C. State Guard Deputy Commander) Richard Eckstrom – meets quarterly. And both the task force and the GCCC are working to protect our state's military bases. But in a recent conversation with MidlandsBiz, McLeese says the citizens of South Carolina – with the biggest stake in BRAC – have to be aware of the potential losses and take a stand in support of these bases.
Recent reports suggest that bases like Ft. Jackson, McEntire Joint National Guard Base, and Shaw Air Force Base – which bring to the midlands an estimated $7.1 billion annually – would be potential targets in the next round of BRAC slated for 2015. Are these bases in fact targets?
Everything is on the table when it comes to BRAC. And what is driving these reports is that in BRAC 2005, the stated objective was to shutdown 25 percent of the military base infrastructure within the continental United States. That didn't happen. They probably closed about 12 percent and the reasons were because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now with all the efforts to reduce federal spending and debt curtailment, there is a major move afoot – led by the current secretary of Defense – to take $150 billion out of the U.S. Defense Dept. budget over the next five fiscal years. That's a lot of money even by Washington standards.
We believe the outgoing BRAC commission recommended that Congress consider another round of BRAC somewhere around 2014 or 2015. Some of us believe the current administration is trying to sort of goad Congress into standing up one now to reduce expenditures.
That may not be a bad thing, because every BRAC also provides opportunities. We ran the traps and took advantage of those opportunities last time, but there is some exposure too.
What might the average citizen do – if anything – to prevent base closures?
The last time, we asked business owners to put petitions in their stores, restaurants, bars, and the like; and have people sign a statement of friendship toward the military saying that the particular community supports the military both at McEntire and at Ft. Jackson. We wanted to get 25,000 signatures, give it to our congressional delegation, let them take it to the Pentagon and let them know that we here in S.C. support the military. That initiative literally took on a life of its own. We unloaded nine boxes of signatures, we literally lost count of the signatures there were so many.
What I also tell people is to thank a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, or Guardsman for what they do for us.
A large part of the BRAC criteria is how well military is received by the community – or how receptive the community is to the military – that makes a big difference.
We know what the bases mean to the local community economically. But what do they mean to the nation militarily.
First, let's look at McEntire. The S.C. Air National Guard F-16 crews based there are considered some of the best in the American military primarily because – by virtue of being civilian soldiers and airmen – they have been at it a lot longer than the average F-16 pilot in the Air Force. They have flown critical missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And they are frequently deployed.
At Shaw, the U.S. Air Force pilots and crews there are constantly rotating in-and–out of war zones. They too are recognized as some of the best in the world.
Fort Jackson is the largest U.S. Army basic combat training facility in the country. Moreover, all the chaplains train there, the Adjutant General's school is there, and so many other schools and missions are there.
So we are in a good position. But we don't want to blind-sided by BRAC. What is it about BRAC that South Carolinians may not be aware of?
The lesson here is simple. We can't take anything for granted. We have to have advocacy. The first BRAC in the 1990's, the state and local communities assumed that nothing would happen to them in BRAC, and we lost the Charleston Naval yard and Myrtle Beach Air Force Base.
Are we in any real danger of losing one of the three bases in the midlands in the next BRAC?
Shaw Air Force Base recently picked up the Third Army. McEntire picked up a regular Air Force mission. Ft. Jackson picked up three additional missions. So again, I think we are in much better shape than we've been in the past. But when they're looking at cutting $150 billion, we cannot let our guard down. We have to keep our bases competitive and viable, and the folks in uniform can't be involved, so the advocates have to come from the communities around the bases. Otherwise, the stories of the great relationships between the military and the civilian communities won't be told, and they must be.
Visit W. Thomas Smith Jr. at www.uswriter.com. Thomas also writes for Sandlapper Magazine. See Selflessness & Courage