Loss of Bragg unit mulled, questioned at local level

Mar. 15, 2014 @ 06:47 PM

To the federal government, they are dollar signs to be cut from a defense budget that is larger than the defense spending of the next dozen countries combined.

But here on the ground, the people of the 440th Airlift Wing at Fort Bragg — which has been recommended to disband by Sept. 30 as the military downsizes — are neighbors, family and friends, and have a more complicated fiscal impact than at the national level.

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has announced plans to shrink the Army from a wartime peak of 570,000 to a leaner 440-450,000 — less than a decade after Lee County planners braced for a massive influx of personnel and economic impact to the region.

The presence of the 1,500 airmen in the 440th and their peers is good for real estate agents, who have found business is booming due to the airmen and others at Fort Bragg and Pope Field, and for the developers who built those neighborhoods the Realtors are filling up. They're also good for the businesses where they shop or dine, as well as for local and state tax collectors.

"The impact is certainly noticeable," said Bob Bridwell, planning director for Sanford and Lee County. "... It certainly has [a positive effect] on home sales and on retail."

Yet Fort Bragg's units are also a major contributing factor to the strain on local infrastructure, like schools and social services.

Harnett County, for example, recently passed a sales tax hike to raise some of the tens of millions of dollars needed just to get schools in the county's western reaches down to 100 percent capacity. The overcrowding has been attributed almost entirely to growth at Fort Bragg — including the 440th, which was transfered to Pope Air Force Base in 2007 from Milwaukee.

A new $30 million middle school will open next year in western Harnett County, and local leaders have asked for several more schools in the area to get school capacity down to 100 percent capacity.

And, school officials say, even losing the entire 440th would only amount to a drop in the bucket and won't alleviate their need to build more schools. More than 4,000 students from military families are enrolled in Harnett County Schools, with more than half of them located in four schools in the county's western reaches.

"As far as how that's going to affect us with numbers in the schools, I don't think it's going to make much of a difference, since we have so many families from other units too," Patricia Harmon-Lewis, public information officer for Harnett County Schools, said about potentially losing the 440th.

After all, the 440th constitutes about 1,500 people, many of whom brought families, but Fort Bragg has more than 70,000 personnel in total.

But aside from the varied effects units such as the 440th have on the region, the decision to close the unit seems odd to some leaders — and is being questioned and derided from the local to the congressional level.  

The unit operates 12 C-130 Hercules transport planes. It's the only permanent air unit stationed at Fort Bragg, where soldiers make more than 100,000 parachute drops every year. Fort Bragg is also the largest U.S. Army base in the world and one of the largest military installations of any type anywhere. It's home to the XVIII Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne Division, not to mention the heralded Green Berets, the secretive Delta Force and the United States Army Special Operations Command.

Maj. Lisa Ray, the unit's public affairs officer, said she couldn't comment on the reasoning for disbanding the unit because she honestly doesn't know, other than the claims of cost-cutting. She said until the decision is finalized, the men and women of the 440th will continue their daily drills and exercises.

Their motto is, after all, Numquam Non Paratus, or Never Not Prepared.

"We can't control Congress," Ray said, adding that they can — and have been — controlling their own readiness: "We need to be ready 24 hours for a phone call, and 72 hours to be able to go anywhere in the world."

And while any decisions about the future of her unit are being made well above the paygrade of Ray and most of her fellow airmen, Bridwell, the local planner, did second guess the proposed cut.

"I think most people don't understand the logic behind removing the only planes from the base that has our Airborne troops," said Bridwell, who also serves as chairman of a regional planning group for Fort Bragg and its surrounding counties. "And I'm no military strategist, but I don't understand it either."

The state's national politicians agree with him. Sen. Kay Hagan called the plan unacceptable, Rep. Renee Ellmers called it unneccessary and possibly harmful to national security, and Sen. Richard Burr has also expressed concern in media interviews.