For more on the Southeast Georgia Friends of Fort Stewart and Hunter, visit friendsofftstewartandhunter.com.
A group of leaders in the Coastal Empire and Lowcountry is trying to make sure the federal government doesn’t derail one of the area’s most powerful economic engines.
Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas, a member of the Southeast Georgia Friends of Fort Stewart, spoke to Rotary Club of Effingham County about the impacts of the sprawling post and Hunter Army Airfield and the efforts to stave off further budget cuts to both.
“We understand that Fort Stewart is our economic engine,” said Thomas, who is finishing his second term as Hinesville’s mayor.” Many times people will say it’s not an economic engine, but it is.”
Fort Stewart and Hunter’s direct impact on Coastal Georgia is pegged at $1.4 billion. The overall economic value of Fort Stewart and Hunter to the region is estimated to be $5.4 billion. The posts employ more than 6,000 civilians and contractors and are home to more than 23,000 active duty soldiers.
“We have about 19 industries in our county. All of them together don’t bring in $1.4 billion into our community,” Thomas said.
Thomas warned that sequestration and another potential round of base realignments and closures, known as BRACs, could have a serious impact on Coastal Georgia’s military installations. The defense budget for the current spending year, Thomas pointed out, needed to be augmented by $92 billion to cover overseas contingency operations. The Obama administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2015 was $495.6 billion, a cut of $400 million from the FY14 request.
“Everyone is going to have a 2 percent cut. Our military can’t take that,” Thomas said. “The military budget … just covers the basic minimum the military needs to operate. It doesn’t cover war costs. Congress was able to put in $92 billion of contingency operations. That’s how we’re going to cover the necessary things our military has from now until this administration is done.
“We have a responsibility to ensure our military gets what it needs to accomplish its mission. I’ve never seen our military cut to the point where they are in the current budget. At one time, they had a restriction on the amount of ammunition they could fire. You can’t train people and get them to the point they need to be to carry out the mission. We need it for our families. We need it to make sure our military gets to have the best equipment for the fights in the Middle East.”
Approaching on a regional front
Thomas said there is a push in Congress to end sequestration and its automatic cuts but it likely won’t happen until 2017. To lobby on Fort Stewart and Hunter’s behalf, along with other Lowcountry and Coastal Empire bases, Thomas brought together a group of officials from Georgia and South Carolina to meet with Congressional and Pentagon authorities. The Southeast Georgia Friends of Fort Stewart and Hunter has been active since 1999.
“We’re using a regional approach,” he said. “What I mean by that, we try to coordinate with all the counties and cities down to Jacksonville. We went in March to talk to Congress about this regional concept. Before they discuss how they are going to decrease military spending, they need to take a look at this coast. If you take a look at the entire United States, we have more airspace, more training ground that is readily accessible at the least amount of expense than any other section of the United States. You can do all of that training here on the coast.”
The delegations that have gone to the Pentagon and the Capitol lately have been mostly elected officials, including mayors from Savannah, Richmond Hill, Pembroke, Bluffton, Beaufort and Hilton Head. While Congressmen were receptive to an entourage led by businessmen, it really wasn’t effective, Thomas said.
“When I started taking elected officials, the atmosphere changed,” he said. “When we were losing the brigade in 2009, we were able to get all the congressmen to sign a letter to the president and the vice-president and the secretary of defense. It affects the entire state of Georgia. That proved to me that a regional approach is much, much more valuable. It is not a party thing.”
What also has helped, Thomas added, was limiting and focusing the requests and interests of the group.
“Go with one or two requests that are the most important and go through the senator or representative who can reach the people who control that,” he said. “If you go with several different things, the staff can’t respond to it.”
Thomas said support for the installations crosses partisan lines, and when Fort Stewart was poised to lose one of its three combat brigades, they got all the state’s members of Congress to sign a letter to the president, vice president and secretary of defense.
“That proved to me that a regional approach is much, much more valuable,” he said. “It affects the entire state of Georgia. It is not a party thing.”
The group, which continues to recruit additional partners, goes to Washington about every four months and to Atlanta once a year.
Post, surrounding communities are unmatched
Community support for the installations is pivotal, according to Thomas. Fort Stewart has won the Army Community of Excellence six times since 2004, and the years it did not win, Thomas said, is because the post was ineligible to win because it had won so many times. The Army Community of Excellence is equivalent to the Baldrige National Quality Award, and there are 30 major installations up for consideration.
“Our nearby communities support their soldiers and families,” Thomas said. “If you are awarded it six times, that tells you you’re doing something right. If it were not for the community surrounding Fort Stewart, Fort Stewart could not win.”
Fort Stewart encompasses nearly 280,000 acres, and nearly every weapon in the Army’s arsenal can be fired on its ranges, according to Thomas, a veteran and former project manager on Fort Stewart. Hunter Army Airfield’s longest runway measures more than 11,000 feet — and was once a backup landing spot for the space shuttles — and troops stationed at Stewart and Hunter can fly out of two airports quickly and depart from four seaports.
The nearby Townsend Bombing Range allows attack planes from all branches to train with precision-guided munitions, and the airspace in and around Savannah. The Savannah Air Dominance Center hosts Sentry Savannah, with fighter aircraft from around the country and the services able to train in mock combat.
Thomas noted that when the 24th Infantry Division was alerted and deployed to Saudi Arabia, it was thought it would take 60 to 90 days to get the troops and their equipment from the continental U.S. to the Middle East or Germany.
“In fact, it took us 22 days from the time the president gave the order to move,” he said.
Currently, there are 3,000 soldiers from Fort Stewart deployed to Europe as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, training with soldiers from other countries. The 3rd ID and Fort Stewart commander, Maj. Gen. Mike Murray, and the division’s command group are deployed to Afghanistan.
“We have people in 22 places worldwide from Fort Stewart,” Thomas said. “This region plays a critical role in our foreign policy. This is still the most valuable deployable asset the United States has.”