Pa. Cold War command site activated

Army Reserve units coordinated for homeland defense

War On Terrorism : The Nation

October 12, 2001|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

OAKDALE, Pa. - Deep in the Western Pennsylvania hills, a large white golf ball-like globe rests above the trees. Around it, several octagonal buildings on stilts tower above the autumn foliage. Upriver, smoke from the nuclear power plant fills the air.

The last time America braced for an attack at home, this fortress 12 miles southwest of Pittsburgh served as the command center for a dozen underground missile sites, ready to fire should the Soviets target the city.

Now, as the 99th Regional Support Command's headquarters in Oakdale, it is again handling homeland defense.

Workers inside the corrugated metal warehouses coordinate the movements of 25,000 soldiers from more than 160 U.S. Army Reserve units in Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the 99th has mobilized more than 800 troops to posts throughout the United States as part of Noble Eagle, the new homeland defense mission. More than 200 of those soldiers are from Maryland units, most of them military police checking ID cards and patrolling bases.

As of yesterday, those mobilized included 59 MPs from the 5115 Garrison Support Unit, who are stationed at Fort Meade; 117 MPs from the 443rd Military Police Company in Owings Mills, who shipped out to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio; 36 MPs from the 352nd Military Police Company in Rockville, who were sent to Fort Jackson, S.C.; and 10 reservists from the 323rd Military Intelligence Battalion in Odenton, who left yesterday for Fort Dix, N.J.

The 99th's reservists run the gamut from teen-agers seeking extra college money to those who completed tours of active duty and remain in the reserves. The Army requires them to train one weekend a month and two weeks a year, but most sign up for more, said Jack Gordon, the command's chief of information and a reservist.

Soldiers in the new war on terrorism reach their posts 24 to 78 hours after they get the call to activate - far quicker than during the Persian Gulf war, when the unit mobilized 2,000 troops over six months, Gordon said.

"Normally, when the wheel begins to spin, it picks up momentum," Gordon said. "Now, the tempo has increased, and the band is playing faster, so we must dance faster with it."

Usually, MPs guard posts abroad - the 99th command, for example, has 200 soldiers in Bosnia. Now, for the first time, they are guarding posts at home.

"Your whole life changes," Gordon said. "You're on a different work schedule. You're carrying a loaded weapon. You're on active duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are challenges. There are a lot of them."

Challenges are mounting, too, for the 99th's staff.

The command post is one of 10 reserve headquarters nationwide that receive orders directly from the U.S. Army Reserve headquarters in Atlanta. Atlanta gets its orders from the Department of the Army, which gets its from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Once Atlanta's staff tells the 99th's how many soldiers it needs and where, the two organizations figure out who is best for the mission. Then, the 99th activates its alert roster, a giant phone tree stretching across the East Coast.

Within a day of the alert, soldiers must report to their Army Reserve station. There, they wait to travel to their mobilization station, where Army staff check their medical and training records.

From there, soldiers generally ship overseas. But in Noble Eagle, the mobilization station is often the final stop. Some soldiers, like those at Fort Meade, can return home after their shifts, though they are still on call.

Before soldiers leave, the 99th's staff makes sure they have health insurance, that their employers understand the mission, and that their records are complete. The command also has a support group, as does each of its units, to assist spouses.

During the gulf war, Gordon said, that network was crucial when one of the 99th's units suffered the war's worst casualties.

On Feb. 28, 1991, the last Scud missile of the gulf war hit a barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 13 soldiers and wounding 43 from the 14th Quartermaster Detachment, deployed to purify drinking water. The Greensburg, Pa., unit had been in the gulf one week.

Next week, the command's staff will move into a sprawling, $27 million new headquarters. It's the second time the command has coordinated a war effort on the run - in 1970, when it moved in, it was deploying one of the few Army Reserve units to Vietnam.

It's unlikely anyone will occupy these stilted buildings again. But those who remember the Cold War won't soon forget them.

In the 1950s, guarding Pittsburgh from Soviet attack was deemed crucial. The city was one of the largest steel producers and, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, its Westinghouse scientists were building atomic engines for submarines.

The Army surrounded the city with 12 underground missile sites. It put the command center in Oakdale, the area's highest point.

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