As Washington prepares to restructure the Army, area leaders met Thursday to express support for Fort Gordon, which could lose thousands of soldiers in Defense Department budget reductions.
Maj. Gen. LaWarren V. Patterson, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon, told more than 130 people at a two-hour community listening session at the post that the “Army is in a period of critical transition, as the nation has concluded major combat operations in Iraq.”
Troop levels will be cut by 80,000 soldiers – from a peak of 570,000 in 2010 – by the end of fiscal year 2017 as a combined result of the U.S. defense strategy and the Budget Control Act of 2011, which dealt with the debt-ceiling crisis, Patterson told the session.
The restructuring is not related to either sequestration or the Base Realignment and Closure process, but Patterson said the drawdown marks a 14 percent reduction in the country’s active-duty component.
That will translate to at least eight brigade combat teams being cut and result in a loss of $487 billion in national defense funding, a figure that was alarming to some people in attendance at Thursday’s meeting.
“The key takeaway here is the drawdown … has already begun,” Patterson said.
Because of a significant impact on communities, Patterson said, the Army wants to hear from the public before it makes final recommendations to Congress, chiefly on concerns of national strategic priorities and quality of life.
Civic and business leaders from Richmond, Columbia and Jefferson counties spoke Thursday, praising Fort Gordon’s impact. Among them were state, county and city officials; economic development officers; public educators; hospital administrators; business leaders; and infrastructure providers in the region.
Letters were read from U.S. Rep. John Barrow and U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, who promised to do everything possible to protect Fort Gordon, which they called the “premier place for cyber intelligence” and “crucial to combating threats to national security.”
Area leaders spoke about the benefits of the 55,000-acre Army post, which records show has a military population of 15,000, a residential population of 2,800 families and an annual economic impact of $1.4 billion on the region.
Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver said Fort Gordon helped Augusta become the No. 2 city in the nation – behind Des Moines, Iowa – for growth of jobs in technology in 2012.
“That never would have happened had we not been home to Fort Gordon,” he said.
Ron Thigpen, the vice chairman of the Columbia County Commission, described Fort Gordon as a “stabilizing influence” for the local economy and a “vital economic cornerstone of the region.”
Thigpen said that in the past decade the base has helped add 6,000 jobs to the area, increase the real estate market by 10,000 homes, bring in $147 billion in investment to public education and increase broadband infrastructure by 220 miles.
Jeff Foley, the vice president of military affairs for Georgia Regents University, said that through partnerships with Fort Gordon, the enrollment of veterans at GRU has increased from 380 to 570 students, the school’s ROTC program has become one of the finest in the country, and the campus hospital has greatly increased the number of hospital beds, dental labs, clinical training and medical research.
“It really is about trusted relationships that have been developed over many years in patriotic service,” Foley said.
Patterson said two combat teams have already been eliminated in Germany and troop levels have been reduced by 10,000 soldiers in South Korea, but he did not provide a timeline on when the Army intends to make its recommendations for U.S. installations.
Some have said it could be as early as this year.