"Foreman says these jobs / Are going boys / And they ain't coming back." Bruce Springsteen, "My Hometown"
So I'm down here at Fort Monmouth, NJ doing a two-week course with 10 other members of the Massachusetts Army National Guard. Sadly, there won't be any others following in our footsteps.
Not because it's not a great course (it is) or because the Guard doesn't support the training (it does), but because as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round from 2005, Fort Monmouth will be completely gone by 2011.
Since 2005, all the facilities and commands at Monmouth have been gradually folding into Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD or Fort Belvoir, VA.
This movement is part of a long pattern of shutting down major active-duty operational bases from the Northeast (i.e. Fort Devens or NAS Brunswick) and putting them in the south (Georgia, Texas, or northern Florida), and taking all the technical sort of commands and concentrating them all in and around the nation's capital.
That sort of makes sense, I'll admit.
From a straight-up dollars-and-cents perspective, it makes sense to house large numbers of servicemembers in cheaper areas, and it makes sense to concentrate certain types of other commands in order to save on travel and other personnel expenses.
But besides the fact that there is tremendous cost associated with those initial moves (so far BRAC hasn't lived up to expectations in terms of cost savings), the whole concept totally ignores the deleterious effect this can have on civil-military relations in America.
Any guesses as to what the most underrepresented region in our active-duty ranks is? No surprise, it's the Northeast. And as we lose our Pease AFBs and our NAS South Weymouths to sunnier climes, the distance between Northeasterners and the military only grows.
During the last BRAC round, we damn near lost Hanscom AFB as well as the Submarine Base in Groton, CT (the only major operational base of any kind left in New England) and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
Thankfully, we kept all of those around.
I know I'm biased here. Never mind the way I titled this blog to begin with, I've either worked or will work (Mass. Guard HQ is moving to Hanscom soon) at all the places I just named.
Putting my biases aside for a second, it's worth acknowledging that in addition to the strategic importance of not over-concentrating your forces (and history is RIFE with examples of that one), there's a human side to it, too.
Fort Monmouth, which houses many civilian-staffed technical commands, is only an hour or less from New York City. As a result, it can draw some of the best minds in Computer Science from technical schools in and around NYC and keep its graduates around with the perks of being near the beach (hey, you might see The Situation trolling the local bars) and being near the nation's major cultural hub. Lots of people who might otherwise never have exposure to the military come work here as civilians and come away more aware of what the military is and what it does as a result. They can then pass that knowledge on to their friends, family, and anyone else who cares.
If all the Fort Monmouth-type commands end up in a single place, that exposure is lost. For an entire community that supports this post, and makes its living off the residual effect of the incomes of those who work here, the military just becomes "out of sight, out of mind."
From a recruiting point of view, the military loses out on the best, and oldest, form of advertising ever known to man (word of mouth). And from a retention point of view, again, the military loses, because it takes away the option of Metro NYC from the soldier, sailor, airman, or marine who would re-enlist if it meant being closer to home, or to a loved one, or to some other draw.
The military *shouldn't* necessarily represent the society proportionally. It's not balanced for gender, for age, for physical ability, or for many other ways people can be categorized and/or divided. However, there are some ways in which the single biggest class- and race-integrating mechanism our society has ever known should reflect the greatness of the many aspects that feed into the total fabric of Americana. One of those is region. When all your major Army posts are concentrated in the South (and named after Confederate Civil War Generals, but that's another story for another day), something is lost.
Maybe it can't be easily counted on paper, but like many things that can't be quantified, its importance seems starkest in its absence.
All states and regions will always have some military presence, because we all have Reserve Units and we all have a National Guard component. But from where I sit, there's a lot to be gained when our voters, taxpayers, chattering classes, op-ed writers, and decisionmakers can have more firsthand exposure to who our servicemembers are, and to what they do.
And I wish the BRAC commission saw it that way, too.