Merging Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base into the largest military installation on the West Coast took four years, directly affects more than 100,000 people and will cost at least $8.5 million.
The transition to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which officially took place last week, arouses deep emotions, loyalties and rivalries against a backdrop of uncertain long-term savings.
And while commanders expect much of the consolidation to go unnoticed, there will be plenty of signs of change.
• Soldiers, airmen and others will learn to speak in terms of “base” instead of “post” for the Army side of the installation, which now covers some 91,000 acres in Pierce and Thurston counties. Over time, everyone who works on or routinely uses facilities there – from families to veterans to contractors – must have a new windshield sticker.
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• Duties and direct supervisors for hundreds of civilian employees might change. Many will find themselves working for – and paid by – the Army instead of the Air Force. Contracts for many supplies and services eventually will be combined.
• The public will be exposed to new signs on Interstate 5, the acronym JBLM in news and traffic reports, and weather information from McChord Field instead of McChord Air Force Base. When they see a color guard at a local event, it likely will include both soldiers and airmen.
Military leaders also point to the prestige Pierce and Thurston counties can claim for having one of only a handful of consolidated U.S. military bases.
In 2005, the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission ordered more than two dozen Army, Navy and Air Force installations to come together in a dozen locations. In five rounds of cuts since 1988, hundreds of other military communities have seen their bases closed, or proposed for closure.
But if you do business or live in the Tacoma area, “you’ve just had created in your backyard one of 12 national assets,” said Air Force Col. Kenny Weldon, deputy commander of the new joint base garrison.
The creation of Lewis-McChord essentially combines the work forces of Pierce County’s first- and third-largest employers.
It is no small task. A 5-inch-thick, 990-page memorandum of agreement between Lewis and McChord is still being implemented. The conversion will occur in stages and won’t be complete until Oct. 1, when the base reaches what the military calls Final Operational Capability.
In some ways, “it’s like taking Burger King and McDonald’s and saying, ‘Now you’re going to be one organization’” under the same management, Weldon said.
Each still puts out a unique product, but the service levels and standards will become identical, he added.
“We both produce defense for our country,” Weldon said.
The way military leaders here and at the Pentagon see it, the union provides a stronger platform for supporting warfighters and peacekeepers who are deployed around the globe or are training at home.
Many operations won’t change at all. No jobs or pay will be lost, officials say. The number and location of entry and exit gates stay the same.
From boots on the ground to planes in the air, the core identities, missions and chains of command for each branch remain separate.
But as with most marriages, there is a head of household – and in this case, it is the Army.
WEST POINT GRAD COMMANDS
Col. Thomas H. Brittain, a West Point graduate and infantry officer, commands the new garrison. Weldon is Brittain’s wingman but also retains his Air Force title and duties as mission support commander of the 62nd Airlift Wing.
The garrison will run the joint base out of a three-story brick building near the DuPont gate.
It manages a myriad of joint support services: grass cutting and tree trimming; fueling aircraft, Strykers and other vehicles; maintaining runways and ranges; ensuring gate security; managing housing, child care and medical services for families; and nearly everything in between, from infrastructure to morale services.
Brittain and Weldon compare their garrison to a city government. Funds previously allocated to the Air Force for McChord support functions now will flow to the Army for garrison operations.
Whether the merger will save money in the long run, as defense officials predict, remains unclear. Federal accounting watchdogs are increasingly doubtful.
The local work force will not shrink. Base officials expect they’ll need more employees to meet rising standards of service, but they can’t supply a specific number.
Meantime, some families might see new benefits. The Madigan Foundation recently began providing child-care vouchers based on financial need at the behavioral health clinic inside the McChord Medical Clinic.
“We are looking forward to expanding other Madigan Foundation programs to McChord,” said board member Heidi Singh.
But there are concerns in some quarters – particularly from area retirees – that some of the Air Force’s storied culture and care for airmen might be lost in translation. For decades, the Air Force proportionally spent more on quality-of-life than its counterparts, military columnist Tom Philpott wrote in a 2007 piece about the move to joint basing.
Locally, some Air Force retirees worry the condition of McChord facilities and programs will suffer under Army command.
“We … Air Force personnel past and present, do not wish to see this happen,” retirees J.A. and P.K. Milner wrote about the consolidation in an e-mail to The News Tribune. “We don’t see the need to live in each other’s living rooms, dipping into each other’s bank accounts.”
On the other side, some retired and former soldiers complain airmen have relatively easy duty, with lower risk and shorter deployments.
“I think it’s a demotion in some way to all be considered one,” said Carrie Huskinson, who was stationed at Madigan Army Medical Center from 1980-1986. “I like keeping my branches separate.”
HOW MILITARY, CIVILIAN LIVES CHANGE
If you were in the Army at Fort Lewis a week ago, you’re still in the Army now. You report to the Army chain of command.
Similar command structures are intact for members of other active duty military units, reservists and National Guard units.
One wrinkle: Some 640 airmen and 625 civilians who handled support functions at the former McChord Air Force Base are beginning a phased transfer to the joint base garrison.
If you’re, say, an airman who provides support services such as security, you will find yourself providing those services under the direction of the Army. You would remain, however, under the command of the Air Force.
Civilians and contractors working for the Army still work for the Army, though duties and responsibilities could change as work forces are combined. Hundreds of those employed by the Air Force will all work for the Army by the time the transition is complete Oct. 1. Anyone whose work deals with Air Force combat missions will continue to work for the Air Force.
Security procedures that differed between the Army post and the Air Force Base will be changed incrementally until there’s one policy for the joint base by Oct. 1, spokesman J.C. Mathews said.
People with proper ID, including the new windshield sticker, will still be waved through; visitors will need to check in for approved access.
“Honestly, we don’t see any noticeable changes at the gates,” Mathews said.
At some point, traffic routes between the Lewis and McChord sides could improve, Brittain said, although the work still needs funding and there’s no date for construction.
LIVING, WORKING, TRAINING TOGETHER
Some military leaders point overseas for examples of what joint operations might look like in the states.
In Iraq, for example, Joint Base Balad is operated by the Air Force, but a mix of U.S. and other military forces comes together there. Thousands of Washington troops have served at Balad, including airmen from McChord, soldiers from Fort Lewis and members of the Washington National Guard’s 81st Brigade Combat Team.
Brittain sees joining base operations in the South Sound as a “natural progression” of that.
American forces long have lived, worked and trained together on foreign soil, said Air Force Col. Mickey Addison, deputy director for joint basing at the Pentagon.
But until five joint bases were created last year, such combinations of Army-Air Force or Navy-Air Force or Air Force-Army-Navy hadn’t occurred on the home front.
Brittain put it this way: Fuel will be delivered, medical care will be dispensed, housing, child care and other services will remain available to soldiers, airmen and their families.
“The installation services the customer,” he said. Whether the person giving it “is in a green uniform, or a blue uniform or a coat and tie or a dress, you should see no difference.”
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith said such mergers will help all of the nation’s armed forces work better together as they emerge from their “stovepipes” at home and “move toward greater jointness.”
But he and others acknowledge there will be differences to work out.
“What I think they underestimated in the joint-basing decision was the uniqueness of the cultures of the Army and the Air Force,” said Smith, the Tacoma Democrat recently elected chair of the House subcommittee on air and land forces.
Addison added that all U.S. military branches “do things differently for good reasons, and blending them together is always a challenge.
“But it’s something that we’re accustomed to doing because we fight together,” he added. “We know the game and how to make it work.”
WILL IT SAVE MONEY?
Whether the mergers will save money in the long run – an aim of the joint-basing plan – is unclear, though defense officials here and in Washington, D.C., say they expect it will.
Addison and commanders at Joint Base Lewis-McChord all said they believe there will be benefits to taxpayers and troops over the years.
One joint base, for example, might use fewer trucks to deliver supplies, eliminating the need to replace some vehicles over time. As contracts for supplies expire, the garrison expects to negotiate bulk deals at better prices.
The federal Government Accountability Office, however, is skeptical.
In a report issued last March, the GAO pointed out that the Base Closure and Realignment Commission estimated in 2005 that consolidating management and support of 26 military installations into 12 joint bases could potentially save $2.3 billion over 20 years.
But that potential savings had dwindled by about 88 percent – to $273 million – in 2009, the GAO reported.
“The military services’ estimates of potential savings likely will continue to decline in the future, and it is unclear whether joint basing will result in any actual savings,” the report concluded.
It listed two primary reasons: The Department of Defense created new standards for service levels at the joint bases, and in some cases, there will be higher administrative costs and the loss of some efficiencies.
Evaluating service standards and creating uniform levels for them was long overdue, Weldon said. All together, the garrison will administer 267 standards in 49 service areas.
Standards include everything from how long it takes to place kids in a child care program to how often restrooms are cleaned and floors swept, according to last year’s GAO report.
On a spot review of roughly 40 areas, Fort Lewis already met 65 percent of the support service standards it was checked against, while McChord met 82 percent, according to the GAO report. It did not give specifics.
Gary Brackett, manager for business and trade at the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, sees “greater good coming from increased efficiencies” at the joint base.
He and others in the local business community pay close attention to the military, which pumped some $2 billion in payroll dollars into the region in 2007.
IT’S ‘THE RIGHT THING’
It’s too early to tell how operations are working out fiscally at the five joint bases established last year, Addison said. Locally, the support budget for Fort Lewis was about $310 million in the 2009 fiscal year. About $35 million will be moved for this year from McChord to the joint base operation, said Master Sgt. Dean Miller.
Although the 2011 budget isn’t approved, Joint Base Lewis-McChord officials envision a support budget of about $503 million, Mathews said. He cautioned, however, that it isn’t “directly comparable” to previous budgets because it will take more money to deliver better service and involves accounting changes. And what does that $8.5 million in startup costs get?
Some examples from Mathews: It buys new equipment so all emergency workers can work together; it pays to move data from Air Force to Army computers and link some systems that can’t talk to each other right now; it includes added payroll costs; it pays for developing a joint-base master plan.
The garrison commanders know there are financial and emotional effects tied to the merger now, but both said they see nothing but good fortune ahead.
“We are passionate about taking care of our service members, and we are passionate about doing the right thing,” Brittain said. “And joint basing is the right thing.”
The News Tribune asked readers both in print and online what they think about the merger of Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base. A strong majority of those who responded to our online Hot Button poll last week said they supported the Lewis-McChord merger.
In a previous question published in the paper and online, readers were asked whether they worried the Army might swallow the Air Force and its culture. Sixty of those 82 respondents said yes.
Here’s a sampling of their thoughts:
“I think the change is disrespectful to the Air Force and to the many people who have served on McChord Air Force Base. McChord has always been a base of preference and now it will lose that allure. I hope the Army does not swallow the base and rename it (the Air Force) as the Army Air Corps.”
George T. Frohmader
Retired Air Force, Lakewood
“The only advantage I see is that it will make it difficult to identify either one of them for closure (in the future). From a command standpoint it makes sense because the Air Force provides transport and close support for the Army.”
Charles A. Hall
U.S. Army Lt. Col., retired.
“The move to combine McChord Air Force Base and Fort Lewis is long due in coming. ... The capabilities, training opportunities and flexibility this move will create will benefit both the Air Force and the Army personnel.”
Army veteran, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division
“I can’t see any problems at all. After all, they have a lot in common; the Air Force was originally part of the Army. But this is just a consolidation of the two military installations and has been discussed for quite awhile. Makes good sense.”
Master Sgt. Paul Clemens,
“It ain’t gonna work. You can’t mix cream and milk together. It’ll work for a while, but it ain’t gonna work.”
USAF Master Sgt., retired
“(It’s) possible a merger would make it more efficient, so I am not against it.
Bruce W. Fischer
McChord service, 1963-1967
“The mission will go on, but the identity of McChord will be lost. I worry that the excellent services and facilities will be negatively impacted by this realignment. But whether the bases are joint or separate, I pray that the soldiers and airmen – who are among the best this nation has to offer – will be adequately equipped for the missions which they bravely and proudly carry out.”
Ben Rast, Tacoma
Served at McChord, 1994-1999
Will procedures to get on base change?
No – and yes. The basic procedure for getting on base remains the same. But anyone with access eventually will need to register vehicles and get a Joint Base Lewis-McChord windshield sticker. That includes members of the military, their dependents, retirees, civilian workers and contractors. Vehicle registration stickers were not previously required on McChord Air Force Base.
If you have a valid Department of Defense sticker now, you’ll replace it when it expires. If you don’t have one, you’ll need to get it by Oct. 1. This affects many retirees. You can register your vehicle at Waller Hall, Building 2140, on the main part of the base from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. work days, or at the Main Gate Visitor Control Center (Interstate 5, exit 120) from 5 to 10 p.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekends and holidays. For more information, go to www.lewis-mcchord.army.mil/des/le_veh_registration.htm.
Didn’t some Navy bases in Kitsap County merge a few years ago? Was that the same thing?
Yes and no. Naval Station Bremerton, Submarine Base Bangor and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Keyport merged about six years ago into Naval Base Kitsap. It was a case of the Navy combining resources, not two different military branches joining into one base.
Will the Air Force control McChord Field?
Yes. It will operate the airfield as it has in the past. But other portions of what was McChord Air Force Base will be managed by the Joint Base Garrison.
Wasn’t the Air Force once part of the Army?
Yes. Air Force history dates to the U.S. Army Signal Corps Aeronautical Division in 1907. The U.S. Army Air Corps was established on July 2, 1926, becoming the U.S. Army Air Forces in June 1941. The Air Force became a separate military branch on Sept. 18, 1947.
Will a road between Fort Lewis and McChord open soon?
No, but officials are working on developing a four-lane road network. They want to get military traffic off Interstate 5 and allow those with base access to move from one side of the joint base to the other without stopping at gates or leaving federal property. Some $9 million for the project has been funded, and it may be built in phases. The estimated total cost is $30 million.
Will the Post Exchange, Base Exchange and commissaries be combined? Will any of these shopping centers be closed to save money?
Base officials say they know of no plans to do so. The shopping facilities already have a common management; the Army and Air Force Exchange System runs the exchanges. The Defense Commissary Agency manages the commissaries.
Will there be any changes to on-base housing?
No. Equity Residential, a private company, already provides housing in what it calls Lewis-McChord Communities. Army and Air Force families are eligible to live in all areas managed by the company. Air Force members do have a higher priority on McChord Field, but as of late January there were 185 Army families living in housing on the Air Force side of the base.
JBLM, BY THE NUMBERS
90,836: Acres at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Pierce and Thurston counties
320,000-plus: Acres at Joint Base Lewis-McChord Yakima Training Center
$508 million: Annual operating budget for joint base support services
30,294: Active duty Army personnel
2,805: Army reservists
3,637: Air Force active duty personnel
2,342: Air Force reservists and National Guard at McChord Airfield
17,000: Army troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan
43: Number of C-17 Globemaster III aircraft assigned to McChord
10,968: Army civilian employees and contractors at the main Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Yakima Training Center
4,316: Air Force civilians and contractors
49,500: Family members
29,247: Military retirees in area
FORT LEWIS HISTORY
Beginnings: Camp Lewis formed in 1917 after Pierce County residents approved a $2 million bond measure to buy 68,721 acres for donation to the government for military use. Some 60,000 men from the 91st Division moved into hastily constructed facilities to train for World War I. Over the years, the installation grew by nearly 20,000 acres.
Named for: Meriwether Lewis, the soldier and Army officer who led an early exploration of America’s West.
Became Fort Lewis, a full-fledged Army post: In 1927 after permanent barracks were constructed.
Beginnings: Pierce County bought 900 acres for an airstrip, and construction began on what would be called Tacoma Field on April 21, 1929. But the airport lost money, and Pierce County deeded it to the War Department in 1938. Over the years, the base quadrupled in acreage.
Renamed McChord Field: On May 5, 1938, for Col. William Caldwell McChord, a West Point graduate and cavalry officer who became a Junior Military Aviator in 1918 and later a pioneer in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was killed in the crash of his Northrop A-17 single engine attack bomber on Aug. 18, 1937, near Richmond, Va.
Became McChord Air Force Base: Jan. 1, 1948. 26 bases become 12
JOINT BASES FORMED JAN. 31
26 military bases in the United States and Guam merged into 12 over the last year. Five joint bases became active Jan. 31, 2009. Seven mergers became official last week.
Washington: Joint Base Lewis-McChord from Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base
Alaska: Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson from Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson
Hawaii: Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam from Naval Station Pearl Harbor and Hickam Air Force Base
Texas: Joint Base San Antonio from Lackland Air Force Base, Randolph Air Force Base and Fort Sam Houston
South Carolina: Joint Base Charleston from Charleston Air Force Base and Naval Weapons Station Charleston
Virginia: Joint Base Langley-Eustis (formerly Langley Air Force Base and Fort Eustis)
Washington, D.C.: Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling from Naval Support Facility Anacostia and Bolling Air Force Base
FORMED IN 2009
Maryland/Washington, D.C.: Joint Base Andrews-Naval Air Facility Washington from Andrews Air Force Base and Naval Air Facility Washington
New Jersey: Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst from McGuire Air Force Base, Fort Dix and Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst
Virginia: Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek- Fort Story from Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek and Fort Story
Virginia: Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall; formerly Fort Myer and Henderson Hall (Marine Corps)
Guam: Joint Region Marianas (formerly Naval Base Guam and Andersen Air Force Base)
Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659