Public comment period ends on possible cuts at Fort Benning

Public comments assessing possible cuts at Fort Benning and 20 other installations ended Thursday after communities were granted a 30-day extension.

Comments have poured into the Environmental Command at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, since the Army’s Programmatic Environmental Assessment was released on Jan. 18 and the comment period extended 30 days from Feb. 19. The assessment outlined the environmental and socio-economic impacts of cutting the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team at Kelley Hill or keeping the brigade on post.

The PEA is part of the Army’s plan to reduce its force from 562,000 to 490,000 soldiers by deactivating eight brigades by 2020. Two of the cuts would come from Europe but the other six would be considered from 21 U.S. installations, including the 3rd Brigade which is attached to the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga.

Fort Benning was among four installations with the most comments by Tuesday although it was the leader a month ago. “We get about 200 comments a day,” said Cathy Kropp, a public affairs spokeswoman for the Environmental Command. “We are getting boxes in the mail.”

So far, Fort Benning is second with 693 comments behind the leader Fort Polk, La., at 2,530. Trailing in third place is Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., with 637 and Fort Carson, Colo., with 185 comments.

Kropp said comments will still be added to the record if they’re received with a post mark by March 21. “We are actually reviewing every comment and we identify each entry in what the commenters are saying, as far as theme,” she said. “Many commenters say the same thing. A lot of these four used form letters.”

All of the information will be compiled on Wednesday. It will be summarized and sent to the Army general officer who also reviews the information. “What this does is gives them the information they need from an environmental standpoint to know that there are no impacts for either of the alternatives when they are ready to make a decision,” Kropp said.

Kropp noted the environmental and socio-economic impacts are just one piece of different things that go into these kinds of decisions.“It is up to the Army when they want to make the decision,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr., D-Albany and whose 2nd Congressional District includes Fort Benning, sought an extension on public comments last month and sent a letter Wednesday to Assistant Secretary of the Army Katherine Hammack, urging continued support of a strong Fort Benning.

Losing the brigade at Fort Benning could impact soldiers and civilian jobs, including 3,900 soldiers and 3,300 civilians. The impact totals 17,800 when 3,950 spouses and 6,791 depended children are added to the group.

“The Programmatic Environmental Assessment highlights some important environmental as well as socio-economic impacts with the possible removal of a brigade combat team,” Bishop wrote. “I believe however, that the report failed to recognize some of the substantial investments that were made by the Army in the past, specifically with regards to Fort Benning.”

He pointed to the $3.5 billion in improvements for the Base Realignment and Closure Commission to move the Armor School from Fort Knox, Ky. Construction included new roads, trails for training, modern facilities along with a new hospital and 860-room post hotel.

Bishop said he had asked Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno how he would account for investments in the force structure realignment. “He testified about using specific criteria that included facilities, training space and housing,” Bishop noted in the letter to Hammack. “The investments which were described above should be taken into account in the Army’s decision making process since they all relate to facilities, training space and housing.”

To make the Army aware of support for Fort Benning, numerous resolutions and letters were forwarded to the Army from the Georgia House, Georgia Senate, Columbus Council, Russell County Commission, Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, Valley Partnership and other public and civic groups, said Gary Jones, executive vice president of Economic Development and Military Affairs at the Chamber of Commerce. “We have been very, very involved reaching out and helping people communicate their concerns about this Department of Defense draw down as it impacts Fort Benning,” Jones said.