WASHINGTON — Central and southwestern Louisiana community leaders spent Tuesday and Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon making the case with the U.S. Army for the sustained viability of Fort Polk and its multibillion-dollar annual impact in the state.
The future of Fort Polk is currently up in the air as the Army considers whether to reduce its Fort Polk personnel by up to 5,300 soldiers — more than half of the active-duty troops stationed there — or to add up to 1,000 soldiers.
Fort Polk is among 21 posts nationally that could lose more than 1,000 soldiers. The Army is proposing to reduce its active-duty ranks by more than 70,000 people and get down to 490,000 troops 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 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.
Scott calculated that a reduction of 5,300 troops would result in an annual loss to the state government of more than $24 million and more than $7 million in local government revenues. Counting families, contractors and more, the troop reduction would mean a total population loss of more than 20,700 people, he estimated.
Michael Reese, chairman of the private Fort Polk Progress group, said the facility is well positioned to grow because it has the capacity to add land to its nearly 200,000 acres and even to add 1,000 troops without additional construction.
Nearly half of the Leesville High School students come from military families, he said, noting that the communities and schools have all grown along with Fort Polk, which is much more than the smaller training facility it once was decades ago. New schools and housing facilities have already been built, he added.
“We feel confident that if the Army makes a decision based on true military value, and not perceptions of the past, then Fort Polk will win,” Reese said Wednesday. A decision from the Army is expected by the end of June, he said.
Making cuts at Fort Polk would have a “disproportionate impact” on the region compared with other Army bases, Reese said.
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.
Last week, more than 1,500 people attended an Army community-listening meeting in Leesville.
The Fort Polk Progress group, which included Leesville Mayor Robert Rose and Vernon Parish Police Jury President Jim Tuck, met Tuesday and Wednesday with Army officials and members of the Louisiana congressional delegation, such as U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and David Vitter, R-La.; and U.S. Reps. John Fleming, R-Minden, and Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman.
Landrieu said she is reaching out to make the case in Washington, D.C., for growing Fort Polk.
“We’ve really transformed this area in and around Fort Polk to be much more hospitable to solders and their families and a real place where we think the Army has the ability to grow,” Landrieu said Wednesday. after meeting with the group.
“We’re making calls to the highest levels of the Pentagon,” she added. “We’re going to fight hard to keep Fort Polk intact and to keep it growing.”
Vitter made the case Tuesday for Fort Polk during a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
“The Army’s own analysis indicates there wouldn’t be any need for military construction to not only retain its BCT (brigade combat team), but it could accommodate 1,000 more soldiers,” Vitter said. “And there’s a very unique Joint Readiness Training Center there capable of training forces for the exact sort of conflicts we’re facing today.”
U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh responded to Vitter by praising the “extraordinarily well attended” meeting in Leesville and the large amount of public comments submitted in support of Fort Polk.
“I want to assure, not just the good people of Fort Polk, but all across this great country that we’re doing this in the most deliberative, the most objective way possible,” McHugh said.