Guard unit survives plan to close it Engineer battalion reduces its size, changes its mission

April 15, 1997|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Howard County's only National Guard unit -- which assisted residents in digging out after the blizzards of 1993 and 1996 -- was scheduled to close this year, a victim of military cutbacks. But the unit has been spared.

The survival of the Maryland Army National Guard 121st Engineer Battalion means that its 50-year-old armory, on a prime piece of property for development across from the new Long Gate shopping center, isn't likely to be sold off.

And it means that the Guard unit will stay around to help the county in emergencies, as it did during Hurricane Agnes in 1972 and the blizzards,

To survive, the 79-year-old battalion -- which distinguished itself during the Normandy invasion in World War II -- had to make its own cutbacks and reorganize.

The unit used to specialize in construction of domestic bridges and roads. Now, it has emphasizes construction less and technical support more as a "fast-paced unit," military officials said, participating in military exercises around the country and in Central America.

Soldiers swapped their bulldozers and dump trucks for tanks or armored personnel carriers, said the battalion commander, Maj. Kevin W. Jenkins.

"The military has changed," Jenkins said. "We're more like a business than ever before. Only the best units survive."

The battalion has been reduced by 300 soldiers, to 490, Jenkins said.

The reduction was part of a nationwide effort by the Defense Department to cut 100,000 of 776,000 National Guard positions.

The Ellicott City unit was told in 1993 that it would be shut down. But in 1994, it was told that it would survive if it could restructure within 18 months by trading in equipment, engaging in more intensive training and enrolling women for the first time.

About 14 women have enrolled in the Guard unit, Jenkins said. "The military's culture has changed," he said. "Someone had the bright idea that women can do almost anything now."

As a result of the changes, Jenkins said, the unit is confident that its future is secure. "We were targeted [to be shut down] because the military is restructuring battalions like the ones we were," he said. "Now, we're a smaller, leaner battalion. We're a good fit."

The only engineer battalion in Maryland, the combat support unit was among the first to land on Omaha Beach in June 1944.

But after the Cold War, such combat support units are not needed as much, military officials said.

The battalion has a long history of providing community assistance and emergency relief in the county and throughout Maryland.

The unit rebuilt the Patapsco River bridge in the Ellicott City historic district after it was destroyed by Hurricane Agnes.

More recently, it supported emergency and rescue efforts during the blizzards by using graders and front-end loaders to clear snow in the county.

The unit's soldiers also drove Humvees during the blizzards, escorting Howard County policemen for five days on emergency calls.

Sgt. Steven Keller, a Howard County police spokesman, said access to the Humvees allowed the department to put more officers on the street.

"The unit's close proximity is obviously a plus. We're pleased we still have that assistance," he said.

The unit's armory, on Montgomery Road in Ellicott City, has been the site of many community events, especially for nonprofit groups involved in such things as food distribution, military and county officials said.

If the battalion had been shut down, the armory probably would have been sold because it is in a "prime location" for development, Jenkins said.

Retaining the battalion's $1.3 million annual budget is a boon to the county, said Richard Story, executive director of the county's Economic Development Authority.

Its loss "would have been unfortunate," Story said. "Any operation with a million-dollar budget has a positive impact on our county."

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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