A rush to make room for returning troops

Substandard housing and overcrowded schools could pose problems at home as military downsizes abroad.

As the military moves forward on historic plans to return to American soil some 50,000 troops stationed in Europe and the Far East, a panel of experts convened to monitor the process will Monday tell Congress that perhaps the Pentagon is moving too quickly - to the detriment of the soldiers that are coming home.

The final report of the Overseas Basing Commission (OBC) is expected to agree with the Pentagon's general aims - to reorganize America's military footprint abroad to support the more flexible needs of the war on terror. But at a time when the Army is already stretched, the concern is that a too-hasty return of thousands of troops to the United States - regardless of its tactical merits - would leave communities with little time to prepare and would cost Congress more than it is willing to pay.

The result, panelists worry, could be substandard temporary housing for soldiers' families and overcrowded schools for their children, further alienating some troops and driving them from the force.

"Stress on families and the receiving communities and the potential consequences on recruitment and retention is a significant factor of the commission's final report," says Patricia Walker, executive director of the commission. "A major concern ... is that the Department of Defense time things properly as not to adversely affect the military members and their families as they return home."

To the Pentagon, the move to reorganize overseas goes hand-and-glove with the Base Realignment and Closure here in America, which is a separate process. Both at home and abroad, the goal is to shift from a basing strategy devised during the cold war - one that focused American might on the Soviet Union and Korea - to one fit for the decentralized threats of the post-Soviet era. That means consolidating American might in fewer major bases while establishing a network of smaller outposts across the globe that will allow the US quick access to anywhere in the world.

Yet despite their similar purposes, the domestic and overseas base-closing procedures differ in crucial ways. Most important, the Pentagon has much greater control over overseas closures and can move forward without congressional approval. Therefore, the OBC is merely an advisory board, and its recommendations carry no authority.

Ultimately, though, Congress controls the Pentagon's budget, and several influential members of Congress have already expressed concern about issues raised by the OBC. These concerns range from the tactical to the political, but few stir more uncertainty than the question of the soldiers' experience when they come home.

"The movement of troops from Europe and Korea back to the United States will have a huge impact on the communities to which they're returning," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California during a June Senate hearing. "Quality of life is a key element of the global rebasing strategy, so the department needs to be very careful to avoid returning American troops and their families to bases in communities that are not ready to receive them."

Opportunities for growth

For their part, the communities aren't complaining about the prospect of thousands of new jobs and a spike in homebuilding. Among the bases receiving the most troops will be Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and Fort Carson near Colorado Springs, Colo. El Paso is so eager for new troops that it has already made preparations for the growth.

"We think we've got a pretty good plan in place," says Jean Offutt, a spokeswoman for Fort Bliss.

But communities can't go it alone. In Colorado Springs, Highway 16 is already choked with traffic, and as more troops arrive, "it's only going to get worse," says Jeff Krank of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. Though state leaders have now prioritized improvements to Highway 16, they'll need money from Congress. "We're going to fight like heck for it," says Mr. Krank. In all, he expects the government to spend $1 billion to prepare Fort Carson for as many as 10,000 new soldiers.

Some members of Congress, however, are wary of the overall relocation costs. The Pentagon estimates that it will cost about $10 billion to reorient America's overseas forces. The OBC puts that number closer to $20 billion.

"I do think it's very important that our desires and needs as a nation be brought into line with our budget and monies that we have to allocate," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana at the June hearing. "If the cost is going to be twice or three times as much as we had anticipated, then we're going to need to find the money somewhere."

Not that the bases need to build housing for every new servicemember. Bases generally provide housing for 40 percent of their married soldiers - the rest look to private housing. But the demands to build new gyms, convenience stores, and training facilities are still daunting, and the bases will have to rely on temporary facilities - at least at first.

"Everything that we've got, we're going to have to triple," says Ms. Offutt.

A life always on the move

In some respects, this is nothing new for Army soldiers. "People in the military are the most transient bunch of people that you've ever heard of," says John Pike of Globalsecurity.org. "They're always living in somebody else's house."

But the OBC suggests that at this moment in particular, when the Army is having trouble meeting its recruiting goals, Congress needs to make sure that the Pentagon takes care of the soldiers it has. Says Ms. Walker: "The Congress needs to provide more oversight of the Department of Defense and ensure that the ... department not only plans for, but budgets for, these moves."

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