By Greg Markley
For the Opelika Observer
t Fort McClellan, AL in 1990, the 5,000 soldiers stationed there and the 1,500 civilian employees awaited news on whether the Anniston fort would be on the “hit list.” This was part of Base Realignment and Closure for 1991 in which many military installations would face elimination or big cuts over several years. The strange idea: implement a “peace dividend” by dismantling the very tools of our triumph just after we buried the Soviets. Go figure!
Finally, the Big Call came from the commander-in-chief. Per policy, he tells the highest ranked officer on a base what BRAC plans. Soon after President Bush hung up with MG Charles Hines, Alabama’s legislative delegates (U.S. Sens. Howell Heflin and Richard Shelby, 3rd District Congressman Glen Browder, etc.) held a much-watched press conference. That 1991 BRAC plan failed, as the fort gained seven more years but finally closed in 1998.
“The federal military bases located in Alabama play an important role in our state’s economy and job climate, so retaining and, when possible, expanding their footprint must always be a top priority,” Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth said recently. “The bills passed by the State Senate will enhance the educational and occupational options for dependents of active armed forces personnel, and they will implement guidelines that make Alabama even more attractive for military investment and expansion.”
Ainsworth is chair of the Alabama Military Stability Commission, a panel created by state statute in 2011. The group includes several elected officials and cabinet members, as well as regional appointees from across the state that have a heavy defense concentration. One of its laudable elements is that it is built to last and will not likely be dropped under less favorable political winds.
I was editor of The McClellan News as an Army staff sergeant and had to keep my opinions of the BRAC news to myself. As active-duty soldiers, we could not advocate for the base’s survival. After all, we were with The Feds and suspicious anyway. But like most soldiers, I enjoyed the beautiful, quaint military and base. Its demise was not my choice.
Alabama has four federal military bases: Maxwell-Gunter AFB in Montgomery; Fort Rucker Army Base, in Dale; Redstone Arsenal Army Base, in Madison; and Anniston Army Depot, in Bynum. Supporters of those are grateful to U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby for his decades protecting and expanding these bases. He retires in January 2023. Godspeed, Senator!
When Fort McClellan was a federal installation, under threat of closing, we added something interesting to the News. On the front page, above the fold, we put “Showplace of the South.” This came about as we saw other places call themselves the “Showplace” of this or that. Why not our fort? It was pretty with abundant trees and other natural delights, surrounded by the foothills of the Appalachian Range. The homes with Spanish architecture were picturesque, too.
Also, I added up the number of Active Duty, Reserve and National Guard soldiers based at the fort, and then the estimated 1,500 civilian employees and an educated guess for the family members. Finally, I got totals for the retirees in the counties around the base, within 75 miles. This composed our likely readership, indicating the fort’s reach well beyond Anniston. We thought that perhaps the BRAC people might finally realize the base’s impact. Maybe establishing that we had 12-16,000 readers was against anti-BRAC protocols, but it was subtle and no one fussed about it.
Community leaders and politicians rallied for the fort; powerful retired Women’s Army Corps, Chemical Corps, and MP Corps generals and colonels promoted the base in Washington, D.C. When the Persian Gulf War erupted, the value of the Chemical Branch was highlighted. A command sergeant major noted: “People used to joke that NBC [(Nuclear, Biological and Chemical threats)] really stood for ‘Nobody Cares,’ but now with Saddam Hussein acting up it is called ‘No Bigger Challenge.’”
Now in 2021 there are bills at the State House of Representatives to allow military dependents who are in public colleges and universities in Alabama to pay in-state tuition while stationed here and provide additional state services to military veterans. Also awaiting House member votes are measures that guarantee the acceptance of out-of-state occupational licenses for military dependents in various professions, and other issues. I knew several military family members who struggled to get their occupational licenses accepted with dispatch.
“Passing these bills just three days into the session offers solid evidence that Alabama is rolling out the red carpet for the U.S. Space Command,” said State Sen. Tom Butler (R-Madison). “Those of us who live in Alabama understand it is a special place to live, work, worship, and raise children, and the military families who report for duty will soon learn that fact, as well.” Butler chairs the Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. (Redstone Arsenal was recently announced as the headquarters for the new U.S. Space Command.)
I still remember the anguish in then-U.S. Rep. Glen Browder’s face at the press conference after the BRAC 1991 targeting of Fort McClellan. A highly respected professor at Jacksonville State University, he had only been a congressman for less than two years. The fort closed in 1998, but Browder was reelected in 1990 and two more times.
Despite the efforts of other officials and admirers of “The Showcase of the South,” Fort McClellan closed as an active-duty base in 1998. (It is a major ALARNG site, and I go there three times a year to “walk the old, nostalgic paths” of my military career.) Thus, the bills promoted by Lt. Gov. Ainsworth, State Sen. Butler, and the other members of the Alabama Military Stability Commission are necessary and prudent. Our state’s motto is “We Dare Defend Our Rights.” Perhaps we should add this: “And We Defend Our Military Bases, Too.”
Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has master’s degrees in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 8 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.