Several hundred people turned out to show support for the military in Alaska and speak against potential troop reductions at an event Monday night.
Pentagon officials toured Anchorage for much of the day leading up to a concert packed with boosters at the Dena’ina Center downtown.
John McLaurin is the Deputy Director for managing force reductions nation-wide, and explained to the crowd that community support factors into decisions regarding cuts.
“Ya’ll were incredible,” McLaurin said at the beginning of the public listening session. “That assemblage outside before coming in here is something I’ve never seen before. You should be very proud of yourself because I am flat out impressed.”
The visit is part of the military’s draw-down of 120,000 troops by 2018. Alaska could lose 11,100 Army positions, bringing thousands more dependents and family members out of state, as well.
State and local officials are pushing hard to insulate Alaska from that. All three members of the congressional delegation testified. Senator Dan Sullivan even joked he was missing votes in Washington, D.C. to plead Alaska’s case in person. Senator Lisa Murkowski echoed the message officials in Anchorage have worked to coordinate with their counterparts in Fairbanks.
“We in Alaska are important to the Army,” Murkowski said over a video-feed. “The strength of our nation is our Army, and the strength of our Army resides right here in Alaska.”
The City administration and Anchorage Economic Development Corporation along with Visit Alaska have taken the lead bringing civic and business leaders together to stress the financial importance of the military to the state. But many members of the public like retired Colonel Peter Goldberg feel it is the lifestyle available in Alaska that causes so many service members to stay and maintain relations with the Armed Forces.
“Ask yourself if it is the kind of place that would encourage you to re-enlist,” Goldberg said during the three minutes of testimony he was allotted, going on to rattle off a list of activities, from hunting to scuba-diving, available in Alaska. “The recreation here is superb–this is a paradise.”
In spite of all the praise, Pentagon officials have hard choices to make in the months ahead as they visit all 30 of the communities that stand to be hit by base reductions. The criteria they use to make those decisions involve looking at strategic position, cost, and global mission, among other qualitative and quantitative metrics. Art Bell was the commander of American Legion Post 1 in Anchorage and is skeptical community input will carry much weight.
“My honest opinion is that this is a dog and pony show,” said Bell in between handing small flags to attendees on their way off the escalator. “The Department of Defense is here tonight because they’re required by law to be here and have public hearings. I don’t believe that’s going to influence the final decisions. I do believe we will lose troops in Alaska from both bases. But I do believe that’s a mistake.”
Though Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott addressed the audience, Governor Bill Walker was not on hand. Earlier in the day he met personally with the head of the Army in Washington DC, and will be in Fairbanks when officials hear from the public Tuesday.