BRAC may hit Guard, Reserves hardest

WASHINGTON – Tech. Sgt. Todd Murray’s job is to gas up Air Force jets, from supersonic fighters to lumbering cargo planes.

He does it at 25,000 feet up, serving as a boom operator aboard Alabama Air National Guard KC-135 refueling tankers, based at Birmingham International Airport.

In a year or two, he will probably give up the job. Not because he doesn’t like it – he loves the work and camaraderie. No, the tankers and his position are to be transferred to Arizona, Maine or Tennessee.

“I’d probably get out and work for my father making cabinets,” said Murray, a full-time Guard technician who is married with three children and recently bought a house near Birmingham.

Murray and 508 others in the 117th Air Refueling Wing are potential victims of the military base realignment and closing process, known as BRAC.

They have been BRAC’ed.

The Pentagon on May 13 recommended closing 176 Army Reserve Centers and consolidating those units into 125 yet-to-be-built armories. It also has agreements from several governors to shutter 211 Army National Guard facilities and move the units to the proposed facilities.

Between now and Sept. 8, the nine-member, independent BRAC Commission will visit bases, conduct public hearings and deliberate on a final list of base closings and realignments. The panel’s list will go to President Bush and Congress, which can approve or reject the list, but cannot modify it.

Reservists and National Guardsmen complain BRAC could eviscerate the part-time military at a time when nearly 169,000 reservists and Guardsmen are serving on active duty, many in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as the armed services are trying to stem a hemorrhage of veterans’ resignations and recruit from a pool of increasingly reluctant youth.

State militias in Pennsylvania, New York, Alabama, Missouri and Oregon are likely to suffer most from BRAC. Top gainers include South Carolina, Maine and New Jersey.

In Alabama, 10 reserve and six National Guard armories would be consolidated into six new, larger facilities to be built by the federal government. The state armory closures dovetail BRAC with a state plan to consolidate armories, said Lt. Col. Robert Horton, an Alabama Guard spokesman.

Not all governors have been receptive.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and other governors argue that federal law requires the states’ permission before the Pentagon can move a National Guard unit or facility. The Illinois attorney general is preparing a lawsuit challenging BRAC.

Active-duty personnel tend to have neutral feelings about the base-closure process because they regularly move from base to base. Reserve and Guard members maintain permanent residences in their communities and the shutdown of the local facility would require them to move to a new unit, transfer to a different unit or leave the military altogether.

The National Guard Association of the United States, which represents Guardsmen, is among the groups backing congressional legislation to postpone the base-closing round.

“When this is over, our guns will be empty, because we’re going to use every bullet,” said retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Koper, association president.

The Air National Guard, according to several military association officials, will be hit hardest.

A third of the Guard’s 88 flying units will be grounded, said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association.

“Can you imagine an aircraft carrier with no aircraft? That is what’s happening with the Air National Guard,” he said.

While BRAC documents say about 7,900 reserve and National Guard personnel and civilians will be affected by the realignments and closures, the number understates the true impact several times over, said officials at national military groups and state Guard headquarters.

The Pentagon figures exclude the vast majority of reservists and Guardsmen who drill part-time on weekends and two weeks annually when not mobilized.

The top general in the Alabama Air National Guard, Maj. Gen. John White, said 509 personnel, not the 183 listed on Air Force news releases, could move or leave the military, if the tankers at Birmingham International are transferred out of state.

White added the planned move of the Guard’s firefighters to an airbase in Montgomery would force the city to hire more fire crews at the airport. “It will be a big expense to the city,” he said.

Sgt. Murray said the Pentagon plan dumbfounded him and his squadron mates.

“They always called us first to go and now we’re called first to realign,” Murray said.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, at least one of the wing’s tankers has sat on 24-hour alert, ready to be airborne in minutes to refuel fighters patrolling U.S. airspace. The unit’s tankers gassed up bombers bound for Baghdad during the “shock and awe” bombing campaign in March 2003.

Wing commander Col. P.D. Brown plans a meeting Tuesday (May 31, 2005) to explain the BRAC recommendations to his unit’s spouses and families. “I don’t have a lot of answers. I’ll just tell them we feel their pain,” he said.

Recruiting new Guardsmen and reservists and retaining experienced veterans will likely suffer because BRAC would remove Guard and reserve units from the communities where their personnel live.

New recruits or less-experienced personnel would replace those who leave because they won’t move, officers said. A unit’s readiness could suffer.

“When we consolidate units, it’s tougher to recruit because it’s hard to recruit people from outside the area (where the unit is located),” said White.

Combining armories reduces the pool of potential recruit pool because units would vie for new soldiers in fewer locations.

North and South Carolina reservists who drill in Rock Hill, S.C., would transfer to a reserve center in Wilmington, N.C. – more than 200 miles and about four hours’ driving time away.

Fighter jets, pilots and mechanics are set to move from an airbase on Cape Cod, Mass., to Jacksonville, Fla. – 860 nautical miles away.

Some Army reservists in Vicksburg, Miss., are being reassigned to an Alabama reserve center 220 miles away.

“They don’t want to transfer,” said Capt. Sonia Idleburg, who commands the 386th Transportation Co. in Vicksburg. “They’d rather keep the unit here.”

In the two weeks since the BRAC list was released, eight of the unit’s 90 soldiers have requested retirement, citing the unit’s anticipated move to Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Morale? “It’s shot. Morale is down,” she said. “People don’t like change.”

The guard association’s Goheen added, “We are going to lose quite a few of them” when it comes time to re-enlist.

James W. Crawley reports from Washington for Media General News Service. Contact him at [email protected]