C The Ellicott City National Guard armory is slated to close in 1997, leaving Maryland without an engineer battalion to respond to natural disasters.
Soldiers forced to leave their units will be retrained and absorbed by other units in the state, said National Guard officials. The closing is part of a reduction nationwide to cut the 776,000 staff positions by about 100,000. The cuts will be achieved through attrition and by eliminating vacant posts, officials said.
"Nobody is going to be asked to leave the Guard," National Guard spokesman 1st Lt. Hunt Kerrigan said. "We'll find other homes for them."
Soldiers in the 610-man unit, the 121st Engineer Battalion, learned last month that it might close in 1995. Two weeks ago they received an extension through 1996.
The loss of the battalion would be detrimental to Howard County and the state of Maryland, soldiers said.
"You would lose an emergency asset," said Maj. Kevin W. Jenkins, the battalion's executive officer. "We're the only engineer battalion in the state of Maryland."
The engineer battalion has equipment to build bridges and roads, plow snow, and clear away debris.
During this winter's blizzards, the unit supported major emergency and rescue efforts by using graders and front-end loaders to clear away snow in Howard County. They also dug a nursing home out of the snow and delivered food and baby supplies to stranded victims in Garrett County.
It also constructed two footbridges in Savage River State Park used for the World Whitewater Championships in 1989 and Olympic Tryouts in 1991. And the unit rebuilt the Patapsco River bridge in the Ellicott City historic district after it was destroyed during Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
Army spokesman Maj. Rick Thomas said the Army would consider the battalion's contribution to state emergencies before making a final decision.
"It's definitely one of the things that we look at when determining . . . cuts. It's considered," Major Thomas said.
The 121st Engineer Battalion is not the only unit in Maryland scheduled to close.
A combat hospital support unit in Parkville is closing Aug. 31, and a maintenance company in Havre de Grace and a transportation detachment in Crisfield are to close Sept. 1.
The 121st is among four or five engineer battalions across the nation set to close, Major Jenkins said.
The battalion based in Ellicott City is a combat support unit that was among the first American forces to land on Omaha Beach in June 1944 as part of the Normandy Invasion and D-Day effort. But in a post-Cold War world, combat support units like the 121st Engineer Battalion are no longer needed, officials said.
"The base force structure [of the past] was based on the war threat," Major Thomas said. "We need to look at what the Army needs to accomplish its mission."
But even if the unit survives the latest round of military cuts, Major Jenkins said, it could lose a company of about 200 men.
But the men at the 121st said they cannot understand why Maryland is losing its only engineer battalion when other states, who have four or five battalions, are losing none.
"It's not just doing away with nameless people. But you're doing away with specialized trained units," Sgt. 1st Class Dan Granofsky said.
Soldiers said it would be a mistake to close the battalion because it is versatile and a source of cheap labor for the state.
"We can pick up a rifle and go to war, we can put in bridges, roads. We can do things for the state," said Staff Sgt. Ralph Champ. "We're saving the state money in the long run. We help everybody that we can."
Soldiers said even if they are absorbed by other units, they would have to undergo job retraining, and move closer to their new jobs or suffer longer commutes.
If the 121st Battalion closed, "it would really hit me hard because it's my full-time job," said Sgt. Bernie Uhden, who is a mechanic at the battalion headquarters and has a wife and two children. "This is our major means of support."