Fort Polk Progress pushes in D.C. to avoid cuts at Vernon Parish Army base

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., talks to Jon Grafton (left), executive director of the England Airpark, and Paul Sawyer, director of federal programs at the Louisiana Economic Development, outside her Washington, D.C. office. A group of Fort Polk supporters met with Landrieu and other Louisiana lawmakers this week to urge support for the base.

Story Courtesy of The Town Talk
Written by
Deborah Barfield Berry
Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Armed with statistics and a determined sense of mission, a group of government officials, business owners and community leaders from central Louisiana urged Army officials Wednesday not to reduce the number of soldiers at Fort Polk.

The group, known as Fort Polk Progress, also met with Louisiana lawmakers Tuesday and Wednesday to shore up support.

“Our area is extremely supportive of the military,’’ Deborah Randolph, president of the Central Louisiana Chamber of Commerce, said after meeting Tuesday with Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden. “We have a long history. We try to do as much as possible for the troops.’’

Local officials are concerned about Pentagon plans to reduce the Army’s active-duty personnel from 562,000 to 490,000 by 2020. Under one proposed plan, Fort Polk, the largest employer in the state, could lose nearly half its strength — dropping from 10,877 to 5,577.

Other alternatives include adding 1,000 personnel to the base or keeping staffing levels the same.

The potential reductions are unrelated to sequestration spending cuts that took effect March 1.

Those cuts could separately reduce the number of soldiers overall by 100,000 over 10 years, military officials warned Tuesday.

Members of Fort Polk Progress said they felt a greater sense of urgency this time than with earlier trips to Washington, as Army officials decide which statewide bases across the country could face cuts.

A decision could come as early as a month, they said.

“We’re at the crossroads. They have a decision to make,’’ said Michael Reese, chairman of Fort Polk Progress. “They have a lot of bases to go to before they cut Fort Polk.’’

Reese said if the Army makes its decision based on the merits, “we win.’’

Local officials, however, acknowledge they’re not the only local officials lobbying to keep staffing levels at a military base.

“We just have to be smarter about the way we approach the Army,’’ Reese said.
The Fort Polk delegation spent nearly two hours Wednesday with Pentagon officials outlining the significant role the base plays in the region.
“We’re confident that they’re going to consider the information,’’ Randolph said.

Officials say local Louisiana communities have invested millions in expanding services to the base, including a $16.9 million water renovation project and a $21 million project to build a new high school. Nearly half the students are from the base.

Downsizing at the base also could hurt local airports, including England Airpark, a staging area for Fort Polk operations, officials said.

Businesses say they rely on soldiers and their families to shop at their stores, buy movie tickets and eat at their restaurants.

“The economic impact would be catastrophic,” said Leesville Mayor C. Robert Rose.

The group of 17 met with Fleming, Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, and Sens. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican.

The effort has bipartisan support from Louisiana lawmakers.

“They’re all in lock-step,” Rose said. “They’re taking the battle to the congressional leaders. They’ve been real champions.”

Fleming, whose district includes Fort Polk, said military officials often cut Army troop strength first.

“It’s a big challenge,” he said. “This is an all-hands-on effort.”

Instead of cuts, Fort Polk would be prepared to pick up soldiers from other bases, Fleming said.

“They could come to us,” said Fleming, noting the training program at Fort Polk. “You would have really everything right there.”

Fleming said another military base in his district, Barksdale Air Force Base, probably won’t be affected by the Pentagon’s plans.

Alexander said keeping troops at Fort Polk “just makes good sense, not only for the mission, but also for the money.”

“Fort Polk has everything the Army needs to accommodate its soldiers and their families at a capacity well beyond the current level,” said Alexander, whose district includes many who work at the base.

Landrieu said Fort Polk has strong advocates in the community, the state and in the Louisiana delegation.

“That has really put us in a great position to ward off any reductions,’’ she said after meeting Wednesday with the Fort Polk group. “You know it can happen, but we’re fighting very hard. We’re making calls to the highest levels of the Pentagon.”

Earlier in the week, Vitter, a member of the Armed Services Committee, questioned Army officials at a budget hearing about whether the reduction process will be transparent and use objective criteria.

Vitter warned of “very widespread concern if there’s a big mil-con (military construction) bill to shrink the Army.”

Army Secretary John McHugh told Vitter military officials “want to be as open as possible, but also as fair as possible.”
“I want to assure not just the good people of Fort Polk, but all across this great country that we’re doing this in the most deliberative, the most objective way possible,” he said.