Caution challenges life at Fort Meade

Tight security at base, canceled events try community's patience

October 17, 2001|By Rona Kobell | By Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Students arrive late for school, their buses randomly checked. Retirees, too, are stopped, on their way to the beauty shop.

Joggers can't jog, fishermen can't fish and some worshippers have to carpool to reach the chapels-all because of the security crackdown at Fort Meade.

With 30,000 active and retired military personnel living near the base and depending on access to its shops, and with nearly 5,000 children attending school on the base, the post-Sept. 11 entry restrictions for the Anne Arundel County base are reaching far beyond the soldiers stationed there.

"Fort Meade has been a rallying point in the community for many years. It's sort of our home turf," said Bert Rice, a retired Army colonel, chairman of the Fort Meade Retiree Council and former county councilman. "But things have changed. It's not business as usual out there. And we will not ever see it as business as usual again."

Military retirees, many of whom live on fixed incomes, use their military identification cards to buy meat and produce at deep discounts from the commissary and beauty supplies from its post exchange, take in movies at its theater, bowl at its bowling alley and golf on its golf course.

Though regulars like Rice can still enter the base, the long lines at checkpoints are hardly inviting. Some, such as retired U.S. Air Force Col. James B. Goldin Jr., now shop in Odenton instead. Others, including retired Army Lt. Col. William P. Gillette, still brave the drive several times a week.

"Sometimes, it takes five minutes to get on post. Sometimes, it takes 40 minutes," he said.

Anne Arundel County students don't have military IDs but still need daily access to the base's six schools - and school officials say students are often late because of the security.

Many of the base's regular visitors had neither military IDs nor a compelling reason to be there; they simply enjoyed the once-open post's concerts, fishing rodeos and sports leagues. One Fort Meade employee, Tony Masciocchi, recruited several nonmilitary residents for a "touch rugby" team he had started in hopes of popularizing the sport. Some approached him after seeing the matches while jogging around the base's lake or biking along its athletic fields.

The heightened alert and the Army-mandated period of restricted events after the Sept. 11 attacks led to the cancellation of several fall events, including a touch rugby tournament and the Officers' Wives Club Arts and Crafts Fair. Among the most affected is the base's restaurant, Club Meade, which was to cater many of the canceled events.

What hit hardest, though, was the cancellation of the base's Retiree Appreciation Day. The event's speaker, retired Lt. Col. Gary Smith, died in the Pentagon attack.

That sad news underscored the need for the new security, Rice said. "You've got to let [Meade officials] do their thing. You can't interfere with that."

Two weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, Fort Meade officials implemented an access control program that the Army had been considering since the Persian Gulf war. Two gates at the 5,415-acre post were permanently closed; Army guards manned the remaining five gates. Visitors entered through the gates at Reece Road and Route 175 and obtained a pass at the base's new visitors' trailer. Those with military identification were waved through.

Now, base officials say, visitors without an appointment are unlikely to get in. That has led to creative carpooling - staff at one of the base's three chapels say nonmilitary worshippers hitch rides with military friends to get through the gates. Gillette, the former president of Fort Meade's Retired Officers Association, calls the security "a bit of overkill" and warned it could erode some of the good will the post has tried to foster.

"This whole concept," he said, "is harassing the community quite a bit."

But Seven Oaks resident Zoe Draughon disagrees.

"We should be respecting everything they do," she said of Fort Meade's security.

Over the past decade, Draughon has railed against the base for its now-abandoned plans to build a shooting range and establish a boot camp. As chairwoman of the base's Restoration Advisory Board, a watchdog group overseeing the base's cleanup under the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund program, she has been one of the base's loudest critics.

But, this time, she said, the Army is right - and the community, especially the retired military personnel, should understand its need to protect its own people.

"This is not a country club. It's a military base," she said. "Those who tried to make it a social club were wrong."

She added that increased security had been discussed for years, so "if people feel shut out now, it's because they weren't listening."

Draughon has much harsher criticism for the Anne Arundel County public schools officials, who acknowledge that they did not plan for the increased security when the county built six schools on the base.

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