Last Taps For Fort Ord

Fort Ord is as army as a GI boot. Beginning in 1917, millions of soldiers have sweated, cursed and learned their kill-or-be-killed skills on Ord's 28,000 acres of sandy fields. The base has sent soldiers into every American conflict since World War I. Gen. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, who formed the Seventh Division at Fort Ord in 1940, thought so much of the place that he had his ashes scattered along its scenic Monterey Peninsula beaches. Now military cuts are doing what a foreign enemy could never bring about. Long considered the crown jewel of army posts, Fort Ord will shut down over the next two years. The army estimates it will save between $150 million and $200 million annually. Stilwell's proud Seventh is moving to Fort Lewis, Wash., with its first-class air-force base for rapid movement of light infantry to the brushfire wars of the future.

Fort Ord is just one of the 121 U.S. military bases to get the ax since 1988. Dozens more have been partially closed or reduced. Almost 40 percent of U.S. military installations overseas will be shut by 1995. The savings from closures currently amount to $3 billion annually. Doug Hansen, director of Pentagon base closures, calls it "one of the few growth industries in defense."

It's never easy to close unneeded bases. Bases mean jobs, and jobs mean votes. Constituent polities has preserved posts like Fort Monroe, Va., built in 1823 complete with moat to defend it from Indian attacks, and Fort Douglas, Utah, built in 1862 to protect gold shipments from Confederate raids. Yet going into Operation Desert Storm, the army had no new rifle to replace the Vietnam-era M-16, nor modern identification gear for its armored vehicles.

Congressional gridlock prevented any base closures at all between 1977 and 1988. Then Rep. Richard K. Armey, a junior lawmaker from Texas, came up with an ingenious way to circumvent local imperatives. An independent, bipartisan presidential commission would select bases to be closed, strictly on the basis of military value. And its recommendations would have to be accepted in their entirety. Congress and the president could accept or reject the commission's list, but they could not amend it. The 1988 commission promptly fingered 86 sites for closure, including a dozen major bases. The 1991 panel targeted 35 bases for closure, and Fort Ord was one of them.

Ord is as much a part of the central California landscape as Monterey's Cannery Row, immortalized by John Steinbeck. The news of its closure hit the community like a cyclone. People panicked. The closure would cripple small businesses, residents said. It would devastate the real-estate market-soldiers now rent 4,681 homes locally. It would eliminate an estimated 4,000 civilian jobs on the base and a combined military and civilian payroll of $565 million. "The soldier gets paid, and he spends it," says Jim Davis, a retired disabled veteran in Monterey. "The money pours instantly into the local community's pockets." George Patton III, when commanding a division in Texas, made this point carefully. He paid his troops only in $2 bills, which filtered through the local economy for weeks. Patton's maneuver stopped army-bashing around Killeen, Texas, for a long time. The $2 bills told people where their money came from.

Small businesses in the cities nearest the fort will be the hardest hit. Barbara Haney, a dress-shop owner, says, "This shop has been here 31 years ... this is my biggest quarter, and there is no business." Bill Locklar, a salty retired U.S. Navy chief who put his life savings in a restaurant, says, "We're down 27 percent from last year, but we're going to hang on." Pet-shop owner Bob Jones says, "My whole life will be affected ... I'm the director of music at the main chapel at Fort Ord. My wife teaches kindergarten there, and most of my business comes from the fort ... I'll stick it out as long as I can."

Ord is in Rep. Leon Panetta's district, and he fought hard to save it. When it first went on the chopping block he formed a task force to make the case to keep the Seventh Division on his home turf. But once the president and Congress approved the commission's recommendations in 1991, there was no reprieve. "It's time to move on," Panetta says. "We'll do OK in terms of civilian reuse." The Seventh Division will leave behind a modern installation with thousands of homes, classrooms, offices, barracks, gyms, day-care centers, bowling alleys, maintenance facilities and a small airport. The army takes care of its own: a corporal lives in a house that would cost $150,000 outside the gate.

Panetta's task force has a new mission: to develop a master strategy for civilian conversion from the thousands of ideas offered by members of the local community. Everyone has a pet-rock project, says Lt. Gen. James Moore, the retired ex-commander of the fort and now the task force's unpaid chief of staff. "Some folks want to leave all the property in its natural state, some want to develop the whole works. Most want something down the middle," he says. Moore and his team hope to mold these ideas into a plan well before the October start of the departure of 14,000 military paychecks. And the key, he adds, is for "everyone to pull in the same direction. In the army we called it 'unity of command'."

A major bone of contention is the future use of the four miles of beach and sand dunes that Fort Ord now uses as rifle ranges. Marina and Seaside, the cities that stand to lose the most after Ord is closed, propose to convert this lush stretch of beach front into a tourist mecca. Environmental groups, and residents of more affluent Pebble Beach and Monterey, less concerned about lost jobs or tax dollars, want to see the beach preserved in its natural state, as a park. And then there's the fort's championship-class, 36-hole golf course. Seaside administrators see the golf course as "Pebble Beach II" and a quick way to solve their money problems. They want it and a big chunk of the fort, too. Seaside and Marina, while still on Panetta's task force, have formed their own redevelopment authority. This kind of squabbling can hurt. Nearby Hamilton Air Force Base was closed in 1974, but the community couldn't agree on its future use. Its 2,000 acres have still not been effectively developed.

There are dozens of other suggestions for reusing the fort, ranging from a state college campus or a national cemetery to an international airport, an Olympics training facility, a retirement community or an industrial park. The government has designs on it, too. The Defense Language Institute and the Naval Postgraduate School, both located in Monterey, are interested in housing students there. The language school is renting space for $380,000 a year in Monterey. Under a federal law requiring surplus government property to be made available to the homeless, the Department of Housing and Urban Development gets next crack. Then come federal agencies like the Bureau of Prisons and after them the state of California. Fort Ord's 44 square miles are enough to accommodate many or even most of these ideas.

"The base closing will not be painless," says Dale LeClerc, a Monterey businessman. "It's like shutting down a small town ... But the quicker the fix, the quicker the healing." LeClerc is worried about a domino effect: "Money lenders won't loan, builders won't build, and suppliers will cut back." The Monterey County Employment Development Office predicts unemployment will double when the division moves out. But the Monterey Peninsula's natural beauty will help. "We hate to see Fort Ord go," says Lt. Col. Jerry Anderson, Fort Ord's director of resource management. "But if there is any place that will survive, this lovely place will."

There is life after a base closing. Pentagon statistics on 97 bases converted to civilian use from 1961 to 1990 showed strong economic growth. In many cases, 50 percent or more civilian jobs were added. A Pentagon report shows that 158,104 new jobs replaced the lost 93,424 civilian jobs at former bases. Bases become aviation centers, prisons, government complexes, industrial and office parks, four-year colleges and technical or community colleges. A Monterey business association is forecasting a 19 percent increase in business by the year 2000 and that the base closing will generate more than 17,000 jobs. Robert Rauner, head of the Pentagon's office of economic adjustment, says these civilian jobs are more "meaningful for the local economy." Military families tend to spend their money on the base at the PX, at th commissary and at the base clubs.

Still, the departing troops will leave blight behind: 7,000 acres of environmental damage. Since 1917 soldiers have bee doing what soldiers are paid to do: blow things up, fire weapons, scorch the earth with napalm. Additionally, the base the same kind of environmental damage found in any city--caused by gas stations, dry cleaners, warehouses and landfills Now this must be cleaned up. But there's heavy industrial pollution, as the fort has primarily been an infantry training center over the years. The artillery impact area loaded with unexploded shells, which are almost impossible to clean up. Panetta explains , "Getting it back to its natural state may be too expensive at this time." The present thinking for that area is a state wilderness area-well marked with warnings not to leave the trail.

Most of the soldiers I talked to look forward to moving north. Frequent moves come with the duffel bag. Yet there were some that looked upon the community as their hometown. Their kids belong to the Scouts, go to the local schools. For them, the move north won't be easy. But others are upbeat. Capt. Steve Spangler looks forward to Fort Lewis: "There's the rain forest on post, there's clear desert-type terrain at Yakima and the Rainier Huckleberry Camp for mountain training." Having commanded a reconnaissance company at Ord in the 1950s and an infantry battalion at Lewis in the '60s, I agree. Lewis is a perfect training environment, and the nearby McChord Air Force Base will simplify movement and security. "When we get alerted, we just load up and walk to the planes, and no one knows we're gone," says Spangler. When the division invaded Panama in 1989, CNN cameras filmed them as they motor-marched to Travis AFB 150 miles away. Noriega knew about their deployment before their families did.

I watched retreat on my last day at Fort Ord. Old Glory came gently down while ramrod-straight soldiers saluted smartly. The fort became dead still but for the sharp report of a cannon and the snap of the flag. The bugle call echoed across the ordered parade field, and I could see the Pacific Ocean, the magnificent countryside, the barracks I lived in as a 15-year-old private in 1946 and a sergeant in 1950, and I thought that all of this history and tradition would soon be gone, that Fort Ord represents an end of an era. Then my eyes locked on a sign over a Wolfhound company: THROUGH THESE PORTALS WALK THE BEST SOLDIERS IN THE WORLD. I remembered a saying my old sergeant liked repeating: Nothing is permanent in the army but change, and good soldiers like change.