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Base panel turns attention to Air Force

In a blow to the nation’s capital, the base closing commission voted Thursday to shut down the Army’s historic Walter Reed hospital and move about 20,000 defense workers miles away from their offices near the Pentagon.
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The Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., could face closure if President Bush and Congress accept the recommendations from the Pentagon and a federal base commission.Emilie Sommer / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a blow to the nation’s capital, the base closing commission voted Thursday to shut down the Army’s historic Walter Reed hospital and move about 20,000 defense workers miles away from their offices near the Pentagon.

The nine-member panel endorsed much of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s broader plan to streamline support services across the Army, Navy and Air Force. In many cases, it voted to merge programs scattered around military facilities across the country to centralized locations.

Late Thursday, the commission also voted to approve its own proposal to close the Galena Airport Forward Operation Location in Alaska, which the Air Force uses to land jets when necessary. The commercial airport there would continue operating. The Pentagon had not recommended the closure.

But it did sign off on the Pentagon’s plans to close Onizuka Air Force Station in California.

Commissioners postponed until Friday votes on the Air Force’s most contentious base closings.

The Air Force wants to vastly reconfigure the Air National Guard, a move that states fiercely oppose. It also wants to close Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico.

Anticipating the high-stakes votes, the entire South Dakota congressional delegation — Sens. John Thune, a Republican, and Tim Johnson, a Democrat, and Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth — attended the hearing, as did Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

As the commission tackled proposals that affected all the service branches, members focused on recommendations that sometimes were complex and interconnected.

“In this case I’m pretty confident we got it right,” commissioner Harold Gehman said, while considering a plan to consolidate some research and development activities. “But I’m telling you we’re going to be faced with a bunch of these ... where I honestly do not know if we got it right or not.”

Commissioner James Hill called the day’s deliberations on the joint-services section agony and said the lengthy debate “highlights the complexity of these issues.”

Politicians work to protect turf
The politicians milled around the Arlington, Va., hotel ballroom where the hearings were held near the Pentagon, serving as constant reminders of their efforts to spare the bases that provide thousands of jobs in each state.

The commission signed off on many recommendations to merge education, medical, administrative and training programs, although it made adjustments in some cases. In others, the panel rejected the proposals outright. But those were in the minority. The Defense Department is trying to achieve what it calls “jointness” — the services combining their strengths, rather than working separately — to save money and promote efficiency.

Part of that effort was closing Walter Reed — the crown jewel of U.S. military hospitals — and moving much of its staff and services across town to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., which will be updated and expanded. In a nod to the Army hospital’s century-old heritage, the expanded facility will be renamed Walter Reed.

Some of the old hospital’s personnel and operations also will move to a community hospital at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.

The commission said care at Walter Reed, which has treated presidents and foreign leaders as well as veterans and soldiers, is considered first-rate but the facility is showing its age.

“Kids coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, all of them in harm’s way, deserve to come back to 21st century medical care,” said commission Chairman Anthony Principi. “It needs to be modernized.”

The panel also largely sided with the Pentagon on shifting more than 20,000 military and civilian defense jobs from leased office space in northern Virginia suburbs of Washington to military bases farther away from the capital city.

Opponents had argued that such a massive job shift could create traffic nightmares. But the Pentagon said military bases will provide a more secure setting, given threats of terrorism following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. On that day, one of the hijacked airplanes slammed into the Pentagon.

Report due to president by Sept. 8
The commission must send its final report to President Bush by Sept. 8. The president can accept it, reject it, or send it back for revisions. Congress also will have a chance to veto the plan in its entirety, but it has not taken that step in four previous rounds of base closings. If ultimately approved, the changes would occur over the next six years.

In May, the Pentagon proposed closing or consolidating a record 62 major military bases and 775 smaller installations to save $48.8 billion over 20 years, streamline the services and reposition the armed forces.

In the months since, the Air Force proposals have emerged as the most controversial. The Pentagon says they are designed to make the service more effective by consolidating both weapons systems and personnel as the Air Force moves to a smaller but smarter aircraft fleet.

The Air National Guard plan would shift people, equipment and aircraft around at 54 or more sites where Guard units are stationed. Aircraft would be taken away from 25 Air National Guard units. Instead of flying missions, those units would get other missions such as expeditionary combat support roles. They also would retain their state missions of aiding governors during civil disturbances and natural disasters.

Several states have sued to stop the shake-up and the commission itself has voiced concern that the plan would compromise homeland security.

The Air Force’s proposed closure of Ellsworth has created a huge political headache for Thune, a freshman senator. He has spent the past few months working almost exclusively on saving the base, and, perhaps, his political future.

The Republican had argued during the 2004 campaign that he — rather his Democratic opponent, then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle — would be in a better position to save Ellsworth.

Closing Cannon would cost Clovis, N.M., a small town on the Texas-New Mexico line, nearly 3,000 jobs on the base and as many as 2,000 more related jobs in the community. Home to four F-16 fighter squadrons, Cannon represents a third of the local economy in the community along the eastern edge of New Mexico.