Colonel updates old post Fort Meade's mission is to join community

July 19, 1992|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

Don't think of Fort Meade as an Army post anymore.

Think of it as a town, or a college campus, with students and civilians mixing with military administrators -- a "community of excellence" nestled between an emerging Odenton and the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

Gone are the troops that train for battle. Firing ranges dating back to the First World War are now part of a wilderness habitat. The Army airfield may be sold for general use. Demolition crews are tearing down barracks that soldiers used to call home.

The mission of the historic base is changing, from a place that trained troops for battle to one that teaches soldiers and civilians how to distribute information to the public and gather military intelligence.

Any day, base officials say, the military could announce a location for its Defense Information School. Fort Meade is considered one of the most likely sites.

In charge of this evolving post is Col. Kent D. Menser, the 48-year-old garrison commander who took over the base one year ago.

Born in Plymouth, Ind., the colonel entered the Army as a second lieutenant in 1966 after graduating from Vermont's Norwich University. He has served in Vietnam, worked for Army intelligence and taught military science at the University of Dayton. His last stint before coming to Fort Meade was as commander of the U.S. Army garrison at Camp Page, in Chun-Chon, Korea.

Determined to make Fort Meade a part of the Odenton community, he has embarked on an ambitious 100-year plan -- a vision that he calls "imagination and awareness."

It includes everything from tearing down old, asbestos-filled barracks to building a modern transportation system. He even has replaced all the directional signs -- which once contained cryptic acronyms -- to something more civilian-friendly. What once read "DEH," for director of energy and housing, now reads simply "Housing Office."

"We want people to understand where they are and where they want to go," Colonel Menser said on a recent base tour. "Fort Meade is for all citizens, not just ones who can understand the signs."

The ever-optimistic commander sells this vision every chance he gets. Colonel Menser is involved in committees and groups and speaks tirelessly to anyone who will listen. He is not afraid of letting his enthusiasm show.

"Making a community of excellence means planning long term, not two or three years, but thinking way out," the commander said. "Everyone on this post should have a 100-year vision."

With the Odenton Town Center Committee working to spruce up and widen Route 175 -- so it looks something like Rowe Boulevard in Annapolis -- Colonel Menser's plans couldn't come at a better time.

The old barracks, said Norman Meyers, president of the Odenton Improvement Association, "were kind of an eyesore."

He said the changes will help improve the look of Boomtown, a strip that once contained notorious massage parlors and strip joints serving troops on their way to World War II. The area has lost its erotic allure and now is lined with convenience stores and fast-food restaurants.

Mr. Meyers said the colonel goes out of his way to buck "military mentality" and talk about plans before they are finalized, allowing community input.

"He's really an interesting chap," said Alfred Shehab, a retired colonel himself and longtime Odenton resident.

"Other commanders have been cooperative in the sense that they know they have to live here for a while," said Mr. Shehab, who chairs a community committee designing a new Odenton Town Center, "but none to the extent that Colonel Menser has. As far as we're concerned, he's one of us."

Indeed, Colonel Menser started a walking tour of the base by saying he thinks of himself as a mayor and city manager all rolled up into one.

"Fort Meade is a town," he said. "It just happens to be a military town. It is a town whose focus is changing. Today, we will go and visit the town."

nTC The changes at Fort Meade are the direct result of an announcement two years ago that the base would lose 9,000 acres under the Base Closure and Realignment Act.

Earlier this year, the first 7,600 acres were turned over to the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge Center. An additional 500 acres will be transferred in September. The fort must give up the 440 acres that make up Tipton Army Airfield by 1995. The rest of the acreage is a landfill and a pump station. That leaves Fort Meade with about 4,600 acres.

The Persian Gulf war was the last time soldiers -- mostly reservists -- lived on the base and trained for battle. Two military battalions comprising about 460 troops -- the 519th Military Police and the 85th Medical -- are preparing to split up and move away.

While that won't have much of an impact -- Fort Meade's population is about 40,000 -- many people reading about the changes think the base is closing for good, a misconception Colonel Menser is working hard to dispel.

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