Fort Polk cuts not as deep as anticipated

Fort Polk and the Leesville area won a victory Tuesday with the decision by the U.S. Army to keep the military post largely intact. The military installation had been facing its military personnel being cut in half.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., announced that the Army will “keep Fort Polk strong” by reducing Fort Polk’s roughly 9,500 troops only by about 240 people rather than the feared potential draw down of more than 5,000 troops.

The U.S. Army announced plans Tuesday to eliminate at least 12 combat brigades, relocate thousands of soldiers and cancel $400 million in construction projects as the first wave of federal budget cuts takes aim at military communities around the country. In a massive restructuring, Army leaders said they would slash the number of active duty combat brigades from 45 to 33, as the service moves forward with a longtime plan to cut the size of the service by 80,000.

The Army is being reduced in size from a high of about 570,000 during the peak of the Iraq war to 490,000 as part of efforts to cut the budget and reflect the country’s military needs as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end.

But not at Fort Polk in Vernon Parish.

“Our teamwork has paid off and Fort Polk has been spared,” Landrieu said in a conference call. She praised the “Fort Polk Progress” effort of business and political leaders over seven years to acquire property to grow the schools and communities.

Leesville Mayor C. Robert Rose called the Army decision a “huge win” for Fort Polk, Leesville, Vernon Parish and the whole state. He said the regional economy can really get moving again because there was so much reluctance by businesses to expand because of the pending decision.

“This proves the Pentagon now has widespread information on how important Fort Polk is,” Rose said. Rose said the next step is to make the case for the Army moving more personnel to Fort Polk. “We intend to now champion that Fort Polk is an ideal place to grow,” he said.

Fort Polk was among 21 posts nationally facing the loss of more than 1,000 soldiers as part of the Army’s plans to reduce its active-duty ranks nationally by 2020. Fort Polk claims a population of more than 9,500 military personnel, nearly 15,000 dependents and nearly 6,700 civilian employees.

Baton Rouge economist Loren Scott has estimated that Fort Polk has an annual $1.86 billion economic impact, including a $980 million payroll, which makes Fort Polk the largest federal employer in the state.

But Fort Polk is still suffering some from across-the-board federal budget cuts, called sequestration, that are impacting Army posts. The civilian employees are all facing significant furloughs — time off without pay — this year to cut costs with no end in sight.

“That’s really the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” Rose said. “We view this as a long-term battle. We’ve won the first step.”

Members of the Fort Polk Progress team made multiple visits to Washington and the Pentagon and worked with members of the state’s congressional delegation to make the case for the viability and necessity of the Army post.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he received confirmation Tuesday from Army Gen. John Campbell, who is the Army’s vice chief of staff.

“Fort Polk’s forces and the Joint Readiness Training Center are huge priorities both for our national security and for communities throughout Louisiana, and making sure that our troops at Fort Polk have the support they need will remain among my top priorities on the (Senate) Armed Services Committee,” Vitter said in a prepared statement.

“It’s clear that our concerted message of support was heard,” U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden, added. “Nationwide, the Army is reducing its uniformed personnel by 14 percent, but at Fort Polk that will be about 3 percent.”

Fort Polk houses a Joint Readiness Training Center and specializes in training “Brigade Combat Teams.” The facility also is host to the Army’s 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division; 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade; 115th Corps Support Hospital; the Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital; as well as the 162nd Infantry Brigade, which train U.S. forces to be Foreign Security Forces - Transition Teams.