Walled fortresses no longer
Pentagon works to cut costs by breaking down barriers between soldiersand civilians.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — At Fort Benning, Ga., visitors can catch a glimpse of the Army's rigorous Infantry School, then stroll over to watch "Shakespeare in Love" in a 10-theater cinema complex.
At other bases across the United States, commercial car washes, sports bars - even water parks - are opening or being debated by military planners for use by civilians and soldiers alike.
This is the changing face of today's military base. The walls that once separated the military from civilian life - literally and figuratively - are slowly dissolving as the Pentagon looks for ways to cut costs and integrate what has been two distinct cultures.
While the exact shape of the new base isn't yet known, experts say it will likely change dramatically over the next decade. Bases will no longer be self-contained company towns, and the Pentagon may get out of the housing, health care, and grocery store business altogether.
"Historically, military bases have been land masses, islands,"
says Jim Martin, a retired Army officer who teaches at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. "Now, you have to think about the community in a way that goes beyond its spatial identity."
The changes in store could mean everything from civilian health care to off-base housing to support groups that meet online rather than in military community centers.
The driving force behind the changing face of military towns is money. The vast real estate holdings of the Defense Department are falling victim to age and budget cuts.
To add to the pressure, Defense Secretary William Cohen is expected to ask for new rounds of base closings Jan. 28 - always a politically sensitive issue.
But even with further base closings, the Pentagon is likely to go ahead with reinventing the shape and function of America's military installations.
The government, many believe, can no longer afford to support such a system of owned-and-operated cities and will be forced to privatize or get out of many base-support functions entirely.
In the next 10 years, Mr. Martin asserts, the typical military base could "look more like a light industrial park than a walled fortress."
The coming changes
Economic forces are well on their way to reshaping bases from Florida to California. Within the Army, commanders have recently considered closing on-base activities, such as museums, that can no longer pay for themselves. And within the past year, the Pentagon considered a proposal to close or downsize dozens of military hospitals.
The coming changes, military commanders say, should help the Pentagon pay for needed weapons programs that have suffered in recent years.
But the effort to change a culture that has viewed the base as bastion and sanctuary will come at a price. The prospect of turning services completely over to the private sector is frightening to some and heresy to others.
"I would be the first one to cry," says retired Army Sgt. Major Bill Costello, considering a future without commissaries and Army department stores (known as post exchanges).
"For most of us, it would mean losing the concept of military life," says Mr. Costello of Columbia, S.C. "It's depressing."
In recent years, a growing number of outside observers have suggested turning over housing, hospital, and services roles to the private sector; others have argued the military may want to simply rid itself of the burden entirely and use the enormous savings to pay its people higher salaries.
A study in efficiency
A 1996 study by the Defense Science Board suggested the choice will be to either fund inefficient, aging facilities or use the savings to buy planes and ships. The Pentagon could save $30 billion a year by getting out of the human-services business and looking to the private sector, the report said.
Today, the four services manage military communities that will be increasingly hard to maintain. According to a 1998 General Accounting Office report, nearly two-thirds of the Pentagon's 700,000 barracks and military houses need renovating or replacing.
Among the proposals now being studied are for the services to turn over housing entirely to commercial developers or seek arrangements that would free them from the hefty costs of building new ones.
Tom Ellzey, a retired Army colonel who lives near Fort Bragg, N.C., believes the military is wise to look for radical solutions to its aging infrastructure.
But Mr. Ellzey, who helped close Fort Ord, Calif., earlier this decade, predicts that changing old ways will prove difficult.
"Military housing has probably outgrown itself," he says, "its original intent was to provide housing that was not available off base."
Still, Ellzey adds, no matter the financial incentives, "it's going to be hard for the services to get out of the 'base' mentality."
Bryn Mawr's Martin believes there are good reasons the services should move cautiously when deciding how their future bases will be set up. For years, the prevailing wisdom was that having troops live in self-contained bases, if costly, was necessary for "social control."
Bonds of the base
Inside their cozy enclaves, commanders would find it easier to deploy soldiers and sailors and build bonds that come from living close to one another. But even if bases of the future continue to house large numbers of troops, their day-to-day functions will change dramatically.
This month, the Navy introduced a new online system to deliver services to military families outside the traditional Navy base structure. The new Quality of Life Mall will allow sailors to bank, call hot lines, or even shop on the Internet.
Capt. Tracy Connors, who directs communications for the online services, says the new program demonstrates the changes that are coming. In the future, Navy families will no longer be tied to military bases as they once were.
"Instead of having a particular type of office on base, a lot more of that kind of thing can be put in a central location and passed around digitally," Captain Connors says. "In the next 10 years, military bases are going to have quite a different look."