Community leaders rally to protect JBLM workforce

Joint Base Lewis-McChord is bound to share in the sweeping drawdown of Army forces that is unfolding across the country, but a group of South Sound business and civic officials wants to ensure that most of the reductions happen elsewhere.

South Sound officials are readying to make their last, best pitch to the Pentagon to keep troops here. They want to attract a big turnout at a town hall Jan. 21 in Lakewood where the Army is asking to hear from people who might be affected by its proposal to slash as many as 11,000 positions from the JBLM workforce.

It’s a critical event, officials say, because it’s expected to be the last opportunity for the public to comment on the proposal before Pentagon planners decide how to carve up a drawdown that could cut as many 90,000 more positions from today’s force of 510,000 active-duty soldiers.

Local leaders want to use the forum to make a case that JBLM “is too valuable to downsize,” said Tiffany Speir, program manager for the South Sound Military Community Partnership.

Her group wants to hear from military retirees who might be concerned about potential service cuts at JBLM, veterans who can describe the strategic significance of JBLM on the Pacific Rim and any business or JBLM neighbor who’s worried about the drawdown.

She and the elected officials who are part of the partnership intend to highlight a number of programs they’ve undertaken to support troops in South Sound, such as:

The challenge is that every other Army community from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Columbus, Georgia, is facing the same potential cuts — and rallying to protect their own installations. The Army has already collected more than 111,000 letters from the public about its drawdown proposals.

“We are competing with other regions,” said Gary Brackett, business and political affairs manager for the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce. “We can either retain soldiers here or have them be retained someplace else.”

A November report published by the Army outlined the potential consequence to JBLM of a worst-case cut of up to 16,000 soldiers from its Iraq War peak.

JBLM has already lost about 5,000 soldiers to the first round of cuts that unfolded this year, leaving about 11,000 more positions on the table for the next set of force reductions. The state estimates a cut of that magnitude would drive down retail tax revenue by more than $20 million.

The base is home to about 27,600 soldiers today. The worst-case cuts in the proposal could would bring that number to less than 17,000 — fewer than were stationed at Fort Lewis before the Iraq War.

Altogether, about 41,000 military service members are stationed at JBLM, including airmen, sailors, Marines and reservists. It employs more than 10,000 civilians, too.

Some in South Sound would not mind seeing the military footprint shrink in the region. At least one resident wrote to the Army to endorse the proposed cuts to JBLM, saying defense budgets have been inflated and it is time to scale down from the military’s recent wartime peak strength.

Residents also have expressed frustrations in recent years with thickening traffic on Interstate 5 and noise generated by the Army’s new helicopter brigade at JBLM.

Some of those complaints have lessened since the Army carried out its first cuts in the drawdown, which eliminated a 4,500-soldier Stryker brigade, a 400-soldier artillery battalion and another 400-soldier helicopter battalion at JBLM. The base also recently lost its traditional assignment of hosting thousands of ROTC cadets each summer for training events.

Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder thinks South Sound residents should be able to make a good impression at next month’s forum. He’s owned a car wash business that has operated on the base for more than a decade.

He noted that JBLM ranks highly in surveys that ask soldiers where they want to be stationed, and he senses close ties between JBLM and the civilian communities that surround it.

“At the end of the day, the Army and Department of Defense are going to make the best decisions for the Army and Department of Defense. I fully expect that is the case, but it is important for the community and businesses to tell the story of how they’re making a difference for the military,” Ryder said.