Master Sgt. John Lingenfelter’s life turned upside down a month ago when his 2-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia.
Suddenly, the soldier faced an uncertain struggle at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He knew he’d have to provide Savannah with around-the-clock care for the long haul. This would not be the kind of fight he could control.
One obstacle fell away surprisingly easily, though. The base housing office offered him a newer, larger home that would help the Lingenfelters give Savannah the attention she needs without disrupting her sister.
The family moved into one of Lewis-McChord’s newest subdivisions. It’s called Merriweather Landing, and it sits on an area of the base called Lewis North – a place that generations of soldiers remember for its World War II-era wooden barracks.
Today, this part of the base holds about 20 percent of Lewis-McChord’s nearly 29,000 residents. Many are living in single-family homes or barracks built within the past 10 years.
It’s Army housing, but it doesn’t look or feel like it. Lewis North includes almost-new headquarters buildings and a bustling strip mall with a gas station, a small grocery store and a mix of restaurants. A “Warrior Zone” lets soldiers kick back with a bar, big-screen TVs and video games.
Only one block of old barracks remains, and it’s mostly used for ROTC cadets. Lewis North has been made over in a way that former Fort Lewis soldiers don’t recognize.
Veterans often visit and leave saying, “This isn’t the Army I was in,” base spokesman Joe Piek said.
The transformation from a mostly idle part of Fort Lewis to a command hub began in the 1990s when the Army built new headquarters for a sustainment brigade and an engineer brigade. Since then, the Army has added headquarters compounds for an artillery brigade, a Stryker brigade and its ROTC command.
A new Army division headquarters moved in over the past month to oversee Lewis-McChord’s five main combat brigades.
As the military nearly doubled the number of active-duty soldiers at Lewis-McChord between 2003 and 2010, Lewis North saw much of that growth because it had the most open land available for construction near Interstate 5.
By contrast, the traditional Army headquarters known as Lewis Main was getting crowded with unit offices, shopping areas, housing and recreation centers.
“In the last eight to 10 years, we had a population shift from Lewis Main to Lewis North,” Piek said.
The Army pumped tens of millions of dollars into housing and lifestyle improvement projects there. Merriweather Landing came together with a $72 million investment from taxpayers and $39 million from the military’s private sector partner, Equity Residential Management.
“It’s some of the most desirable housing” on base, said Greta Powell, Lewis-McChord’s housing director. “You’d be hard-pressed at Merriweather Landing to realize you’re on a military base.”
In this neighborhood, eye-catching American flags on front porches and a conspicuous number of four-wheel drive trucks in driveways would blend in among other young neighborhoods in DuPont and Lacey. Small parks dot the subdivision.
“If anybody complains about this, they’re crazy,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Carl Parker, 42, in front of the new four-bedroom house he moved into when the Army assigned him to Lewis-McChord last month.
Since 2002, Lewis-McChord and Equity Residential have built 1,077 homes and renovated more than 3,000. Equity Residential’s investment topped $390 million with Merriweather Landing, Powell said.
“The quality of housing (service members) get today versus 10 years ago, it’s just not comparable,” she said.
Lewis-McChord has homes for 4,901 families and barracks for more soldiers. It aims to have 4,994 single-family homes when its construction plans conclude.
The Army does not provide on-base housing for all of its soldiers. Generally, about 70 percent of soldiers are expected to live off base. Lewis-McChord has a waiting list of about 1,300 service members who want to live on base.
In years ahead, Lewis North is scheduled to get a new gate connecting the base to DuPont-Steilacoom Road. Also coming is a project to increase electricity capacity and a second phase of work building new homes around Merriweather Landing.
The last World War II barracks sit across the street from the new headquarters for the 7th Infantry Division. People who have served at the base in years past voice a little nostalgia as they see the footprint diminish for those old buildings.
“There’s such a connection with history, and so many good things the Army has done from those barracks,” said Tom Tolman, Lewis-McChord’s master planner.
“From the maintenance perspective, it’s good to see them go. From that cultural perspective, it’s different,” he said.
Back in Merriweather Landing, Lingenfelter finished his walk by circling around some of the ongoing construction work. Savannah kept quiet in her stroller, taking in the sun on a warm morning.
Lingenfelter, 44, is in Lewis-McChord’s elite 1st Special Forces Group, a demanding assignment for a constantly deployed team of special operators. He appreciated the Army’s rush to find him better accommodations at Lewis North as his family heads into a different kind of fight, for their daughter.
“It’s all for her,” he said. “For me, I couldn’t care less.”Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/military