Colonels come and colonels go at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Few get the kind of send-off that Col. Charles Hodges is receiving as he leaves the South Sound this week.
He’s been feted in recent months by the Pierce County Council, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and a national organization called Association of Defense Communities.
The civic groups appreciate Hodges’ 31 years in uniform and his two deployments to Iraq with JBLM’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. But the praise has much more to do with his accomplishments for the military outside the gates than his achievements leading Stryker soldiers.
Over the past three years as base commander, Hodges, 50, drove partnerships between the military and private industry that created nationally recognized job-training programs for troops leaving the Armed Forces.
He advanced compromises with state officials regarding traffic improvements for Interstate 5 and with environmental groups to protect threatened species in Army training areas.
Base boosters regard the agreements as critical deals strengthening the Army’s long-term presence at JBLM.
Hodges often brought smiles to civilian audiences with jokes at his own expense and some clever phrases that helped people better understand veterans’ issues. He liked to use the term “no-job stress disorder” to describe the anxiety soldiers feel as they prepare to leave the military.
He also made a series of comical environmental videos for JBLM in which he donned a costume to become “Captain Net Zero.” One of the sustainability videos featured “Shelia the recycling linebacker,” who’d pummel soldiers throwing cans in the garbage.
The base now is spending an average of $16,000 less in daily energy costs, he said.
Hodges’ last day with the Army is Wednesday. He recently sat down with a reporter to look back at the 14 years since he arrived at Fort Lewis to join the Army’s first Stryker brigade.
Q: How significant is the state’s decision to fund improvements to I-5 through JBLM in Army discussions about where to cut troops in the future?
A: I wouldn’t want to speak for the Army, but from a resident’s perspective this place remains the No. 1 most requested station outside of Hawaii. People want to be here. They want to be here because of the physical beauty we have.
We’re unique because of the urban areas around us: Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, everything in between. It gives a lot of opportunities for service members to do things you just don’t get at some little base supported by one small town.
That said, you solve the transportation issue, you solve the Achilles’ heel — people saying I don’t want to live up there, traffic’s terrible. If you solve the I-5 problem, then you take away the No. 1 complaint.
Q: Some people thought JBLM had grown too big about 2011, when it had about 34,000 active-duty soldiers. Is it the right size now that force reductions have taken away a few thousand positions?
A: We’re about right size. The infrastructure is perfectly matched to support the population that is here.
Q: What about training areas? Does the Army have enough space to train here?
A: As long as Yakima Training Center is still in the picture. JBLM has always been land-challenged when it comes to training areas. Our relationship with Yakima is critical; that’s why Yakima is part of JBLM.
Q: You’re recognizable outside the gates because of the work you did to promote job training programs for troops. How did those projects come together?
A: This was a program that was nonexistent before Congress passed the (Veterans Opportunity to Work) Act. The law gave the services certain requirements to make for job training.
In this case at JBLM, we met the requirements, and then we went above and beyond the requirements to truly get at education, employment, career and technical training, and entrepreneur opportunities for service members.
What exists here in the state of Washington does not exist anywhere else in the country.
With the announcement that the Army is going to cut 40,000 more soldiers, the demand for these programs is only going to grow.
Q: Care to share any success stories?
A: There are multiple dudes who are working with Amazon or Microsoft or Starbucks or in heating, ventilation and air conditioning. I could list hundreds of them who had that anxiety, who had that “no-job stress disorder” that every service member has.
Seeing that transition from uniform into a job is very rewarding.
Q: The forced federal spending cuts called “sequestration” from the Budget Control Act of 2011 hung over your tenure as base commander. What kind of mark are they leaving on the base?
A: I was thinking about the challenges we had when I came in. It was: We have the Budget Control Act on the horizon and potential sequestration. We’ve got budget cuts. We have manpower cuts and we have environmental issues.
Three years later as I walk out the door, my replacement could say the same thing.
Sequestration and the government shutdown was probably one of the more challenging times because of the impact they had on our civilian workforce. These folks have been day in and day out supporting folks in uniform, supporting the mission.
For us to turn around and say, “Hey, sorry, thanks for doing it, but go home” was painful for me to execute because they are the unsung heroes who have been making things happen for us for 13 years of conflict.
Q: You were the second installation commander at JBLM since the Fort Lewis and McChord Air Field merged to become the military’s largest joint base. How is that coming?
A: I think we truly are now a joint base. We’re all one team. What we achieved here was the vision of joint basing.
You can’t argue with success. We are achieving costs savings. The joint training being done by (the Army’s) 7th Infantry Division and (the Air Force’s) 62nd Airlift Wing doesn’t happen anywhere else in the Defense Department.
The only complaint you get is, “I don’t like it. It’s different. It’s new.”
We don’t have time, and the taxpayer doesn’t have money, to be held up on things like “I don’t like it.” We have a responsibility to the American taxpayer to be the most lethal, most prepared force that’s out there.
We don’t have time, or frankly the money anymore, to think we’re going to do things as individual services on our own.