In Texas, Fort Bliss to Grow by the Thousands

With all the base closures and Pentagon realignment, one of the few places to gain is Fort Bliss in Texas. And El Paso is getting ready for the thousands of troops and families heading their way.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A very different case at the Army's Ft. Bliss in El Paso. It's one of the biggest winners of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission. NPR's Wade Goodwyn traveled to that west Texas city and has this report.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

It's 6 AM, and a cool summer wind is blowing across the El Paso desert. The clouds overhead are pink and purple. The sun is not up yet, but the Army is.

Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible).

Group of Soldiers: (In unison) Company!

Unidentified Man: Attention!

Group of Soldiers: (In unison) ...(Unintelligible).

GOODWYN: Lieutenant Colonel David Whitaker(ph) is about to take part of the 4th Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division on a little morning jog.

(Soundbite of cadence)

Lieutenant Colonel DAVID WHITAKER (1st Cavalry Division): Up in the morning (unintelligible) all day...

Group of Soldiers: (In unison) Up in the morning ...(unintelligible) all day...

Lt. Col. WHITAKER: I don't like it, no way!

Group of Soldiers: (In unison) ...I don't like it, no way!

GOODWYN: This is a new brigade combat team being formed at Ft. Bliss. This will be a heavy brigade in an armored division: Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and mobile artillery. These soldiers, infantry and tankers are the fighting backbone of the American Army.

Unidentified Man: Whoo!

Group of Soldiers: (In unison) ...(Unintelligible).

GOODWYN: Colonel Whitaker says by the fall of next year, they'll all be in Iraq.

Lt. Col. WHITAKER: The division just recently returned from Iraq. They were in charge of Task Force Baghdad, so they're just coming off a yearlong deployment. And now we're going through the transformation not only here at Ft. Bliss but also transforming our brigades at Ft. Hood to the unit of action.

GOODWYN: Ft. Bliss is about to triple in size from 12,000 soldiers to 32,000 soldiers. With their families in tow, El Paso is expecting as many as 90,000 new residents. `Why Ft. Bliss?' you ask. Sergeant Major Stephen Frenear(ph) has the answer.

Sergeant Major STEPHEN FRENEAR: You need to be close to an airfield that can handle large aircraft, which we have. You have to have a good rail spur that can facilitate moving tanks, Bradleys and heavy armored vehicles. And you have to have, you know, the facilities and staff, the people, to help push us to a theater of operations. And everything exists here at Ft. Bliss.

GOODWYN: When combined with nearby White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base, the soldiers at Ft. Bliss have nearly five million acres of training grounds and bombing ranges, desert everywhere you look, just like the Middle East. Colonel Whitaker.

Lt. Col. WHITAKER: The opportunities for heavy maneuver forces to train and be able to exercise the way that they would in a theater of operation is just tremendous here at Ft. Bliss, Texas.

(Soundbite of engine)

GOODWYN: In one corner of the base's airfield, huge front-loaders and dump trucks are clearing about 70 football fields' worth of desert. Hundreds of new homes for officers and enlisted men are on the way. Colonel Roger Matthews(ph) is the deputy commander for Ft. Bliss.

Colonel ROGER MATTHEWS (Deputy Commander, Ft. Bliss): Culturally you're going to see a change in terms of the type of forces that are here. Presently it's an air and missile defense--largely air and missile defense. This installation is going to go back to its roots, and you're going to see it become a cavalry post. And now that means a lot in terms of a lot more very young soldiers coming in for the first time.

GOODWYN: An explosion of growth is coming not only to Ft. Bliss but El Paso, too. The city already has a tight housing market, and up to 60 percent of the tens of thousands of new troops will live off base. The Chamber of Commerce has established a permanent team at Ft. Bliss' welcome center to help the soldiers and their families with housing, schools and day care. Between 20 and 150 arrive every day. Mayor John Cook is ecstatic as he contemplates what it's all going to mean economically.

Mayor JOHN COOK (El Paso): Billions of dollars. And I can tell you I came to El Paso in 1968 as an E-2, and if anybody had told me at that time that I would become the mayor of El Paso at its most prosperous time, I would have told them that they had been drinking too much.

GOODWYN: El Paso and Ft. Bliss are partnering to build the largest inland desalination plant in the world to guarantee enough drinking water. For the big winners of the BRAC reorganization, the future is here. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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