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Community shows broad support of Fort Drum at listening session

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From the schools, to the hospitals, to the business community, the message Thursday night to Army leadership was consistent: Keep Fort Drum in its current form.

At the heart of the argument were the investments in infrastructure that the community has made to support the 10th Mountain Division's mission, soldiers and families.

“We have met every metric, every objective; we have made the commitment to assume the risk and make the necessary investments,” said James W. Wright, CEO of the Development Authority of the North Country. “We have shared our community with the United States Army.”

Mr. Wright was one of dozens of civilian and retired military speakers at a force structure listening session Thursday. The forum drew nearly 200 to the auditorium of Case Middle School, Washington Street, and ran more than an hour and a half past the planned two-hour window.

The session was part of the process the Army is undertaking as it plans to reduce its overall force by about 80,000 soldiers, from 570,000 to 490,000, by the end of fiscal year 2017. The stakes of any resizing at Fort Drum have been known for months: Were the Army to cut as many as 8,000 soldiers, the area could lose hundreds of millions of dollars in income and sales tax revenues, along with thousands of jobs. If, on the other hand, the Army added as many as 3,000 soldiers, the area would see slight gains in the same categories.

Organizers said the comments Thursday would be factored into the Army's decision, along with other cost and strategic calculations.

The overall cuts are not in connection with the federal budget cuts known as sequestration or a potential Base Realignment and Closure process.

Sitting at the front of the room, post and 10th Mountain Division commander Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend started the night by arguing the post can handle additional soldiers.

“When the Army planners ask us what's our ability to grow at Fort Drum, we say, 'Yes we can,'” he said. “That's the only answer we have for them.”

Joining Gen. Townsend at the front of the room were Col. Gary A. Rosenberg, garrison commander, and Col. Thomas M. O'Donoghue, who does stationing planning work within Headquarters, Department of the Army.

Throughout the night, local attendees pointed out areas within their expertise where the military's presence was a benefit, adding that much of that is a result of the post's method of using outside school, medical and housing resources.

Realtors who spoke Thursday said median housing values and sales have gone up in the past 10 years despite drops statewide. School administrators said they have expanded their districts to accommodate influxes of new students, with many of the frequently moving military students commenting that the area had become a home for them. Hospitals have been able to “rise to the occasion” to support the expansive military population, Samaritan Medical Center CEO Thomas H. Carman said. The post's activity also has led to development of road projects such as the new Fort Drum connector road, and growth at Watertown International Airport. Several politicians also spoke of their efforts to support the post.

For Lana J. Taylor, one of the speakers who signed up at the event, the post is tied closely to the area.

“We're a family here in Northern New York, and Fort Drum is a part of our family,” the retired Indian River Intermediate School principal said. “Don't take away from our family.”

However, opinion wasn't entirely positive. Near the start of the session, Robert B. Arnebeck, of Alexandria, interrupted the session to protest military helicopters and the speaker signup process that he felt gave a false impression of community opinion.

“It's a canned event ... am I right, General?” he asked, drawing a swift denial from Gen. Townsend. He left a few minutes later, but not before claiming the Army was turning the north country into a “military colony.”

After organizers attempted to condense several public comments into 30 seconds or less, Gen. Townsend closed the night by asking attendees to remember the 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Team soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade soldiers heading there shortly.

The session essentially ended the area's response time, with a decision from the Army about local force number changes potentially months away.

Col. O'Donoghue said after the session that the north country's response was strong, and compared it to other installations with brigade combat teams, such as Fort Polk, La. He said with many of the post's statistics and capabilities already known, information such as the involvement of community hospitals was something he hadn't taken into account. Thursday night's session was the fifth session he had attended this month, Col. O'Donoghue said.

Gen. Townsend told media after the event that coming deployments, which later may include the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Sustainment Brigade and division headquarters, could be evidence of the post's future sizing. He pointed out the deployments come as the military's overall involvement overseas winds down.

“The part that isn't winding down is the 10th Mountain Division's involvement,” he said.

With several attendees unable to speak during the event, those with additional comments were asked to contact Michael J. Richardson, of Fort Drum Community and Strategic Plans, at either 772-7483 or michael.j.richardson1@us.army.mil.

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