Community’s outpouring of support for Fort Drum overwhelms even post’s commander
WATERTOWN — The public outpouring of support for Fort Drum and the 10th Mountain Division during Friday’s listening session at Jefferson Community College was so great that even the post’s commander — a man who told himself he would remain impartial — was affected.
“After sitting here listening to all of you for three hours, you’ve made me so proud, I can’t be impartial, I just can’t,” said Gen. Stephen J. Townsend. “So Maj. Gen. Steve Townsend, but also citizen Steve Townsend, believes that Fort Drum and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum is not only good for the north country and New York, as you all have said so well, but it is good for our Army and America.”
Gen. Townsend’s comments brought the second standing ovation of the evening. The first came when Mary M. Corriveau, chairwoman of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, revealed that a petition to protest cuts at the post had received more than 22,000 signatures.
The Army is looking to cut up to 16,000 personnel at Fort Drum, the largest single-site employer in New York, and in a worst-case scenario, such a large cut would result in more than $1 billion in economic losses, thousands more indirect job cuts and the loss of about a third of Jefferson County’s population. The cuts come as a result of sequestration.
Friday’s listening session, one of the final stops on a 30-installation tour for Army officials, brought out politicians from all levels of government, including Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Willsboro, state Sens. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton and Elizabeth O’C. Little, R-Queensbury. Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, and Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, Watertown Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham, members of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators, and town and village supervisors. Sens. Kirsten E. Gillibrand and Charles E. Schumer and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie delivered video statements during the listening session. Deanna Nelson, assistant attorney in charge of the attorney general’s Watertown office, read a statement from Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.
First to speak was Lt. Gov. Hochul, who said the state has made a strong commitment to Fort Drum.
“We have stepped up as a community, we have stepped up as a state and met every single challenge that’s been presented to us to make sure that this relationship works out so well,” she said. “Making sure there’s plenty of housing in the community to support the people off base — 48 percent of the families and military live in our own communities, 40 percent of the kids in our local school districts are from Fort Drum. We are one community, ladies and gentlemen, and I’m not going to let anything happen to that.”
During her comments at the beginning of the listening session, Ms. Stefanik, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the post was uniquely positioned to meet the challenges of a dynamic security environment.
“I urge you to listen to the calls of thousands of north country citizens who are asking you to protect Fort Drum,” said Ms. Stefanik, who secured the support of the entire New York state congressional delegation in a letter sent Wednesday to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. “There is no better place in the nation to train our great soldiers to ‘Climb to Glory.’”
The support from the politicians was met with cheers, but some of the most affecting testimony came from the people in the audience, who drove home a theme that the north country and the post are one family, one community, with comment after comment.
“We are family sirs, you don’t mess with us,” said Dianne D. Chase, a local radio personality.
Audience members told stories of the care they received at local hospitals, former service members spoke of the safe and secure feeling they had when they deployed and left their families behind in the community and a woman told a story about how a soldier literally saved her life nearly 14 years ago when she was involved in a car accident outside a fast-food restaurant where he was eating with his friends.
At least three audience members spoke of the diversity that the post brings to the area and Rev. Jeffrey E. Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church, said the area should serve as a model to other communities around the country.
“I believe that we can be a model for this nation,” the Rev. Smith said. “We are different cultures, we can live together in peace and harmony, we all can get along, one nation under God, consider that also.”
In addition to the close-knit communities and personal stories shared by members of the audience, the post has a significant economic impact on the area as several businessmen and women noted during their comments.
Direct spending from the post, primarily soldiers’ paychecks, accounts for about $1.3 billion locally, with local advocates saying the post also contributes hundreds of millions of dollars in additional indirect economic activity.
A man from Detroit spoke of the economic devastation that resulted when the auto industry began to falter in his hometown.
“I’ve seen what happens to a community when the primary employer no longer does what they’ve been doing. ... It seems to me that the last thing you want to see is a mirror of what happened in Detroit.”
John P. McLaurin III, the Army’s deputy director for force management and top Pentagon official at the hearing, said he was impressed by the show of support for the post.
“It was overwhelming, the show of support.” Mr. McLaurin said. “Our soldiers live by a set of values — loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. Well, what I heard and saw here tonight was a reflection of those values from the community. For me, that was very special. It just emphasized the fact that Fort Drum and the soldiers and families there and all the communities surrounding the installation are really one family.”
Throughout the evening, between the jam-packed rally in the JCC gymnasium and the passionate comments during the listening session in the JCC auditorium, it was clear that many residents of the north country view the fates of their communities and of Fort Drum as being intertwined. The ultimate decisions affecting both, which will be made by politicians and government officials in Washington, D.C., remain unknown.