When Col. Michael J. Stewart extended his two-year term as Fort Meade's garrison commander last summer, he expected that the base's $3 billion overhaul of on-base housing would be his biggest challenge.
After all, the plans for a private developer to tear down and rebuild nearly 3,000 substandard houses for soldiers on the Odenton base and manage them for 50 years is Anne Arundel County's largest project in years - surpassing the Arundel Mills megamall and upgrades at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
But the Sept. 11 attacks put the challenge of that project in perspective for Stewart, who steps down tomorrow after three years in a position he compares to being mayor of a small city.
Suddenly, what had been an open Army base that most residents regarded as an idyllic place for a stroll or a late-night bowling game became a tightly secured fortress. Home to the National Security Agency and several other high-profile defense intelligence departments, its soldiers worried that they, too, could become targets after the Pentagon attack.
Stewart found himself balancing the community's desire for access with the Army's need to protect Fort Meade's 27,000 employees and 6,000 residents.
"You cannot protect against everything," Stewart said in a recent interview. "I didn't feel any great sense of anxiety because I knew we had a plan on the shelf that we had rehearsed and that we knew what we had to do."
Stewart is being promoted to a job as the chief of staff at the Military District of Washington, which oversees all the Army bases in the area, including Fort Meade. The new garrison commander, Col. John W. Ives, who most recently served at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., will assume duties after a change-of-command ceremony tomorrow.
Stewart, a folksy sort who insists that colleagues call him Mike, describes his last year at Fort Meade as "quite a ride."
He not only oversaw one of the Army's first housing privatization initiatives under a law Congress passed in 1996, but also coordinated the closing of a base that had been open to public for 80 years.
Stewart acknowledged that Fort Meade in August began its transition from an open post with multiple entrances to a closed post with only one visitor's entrance.
But after the Sept. 11 attacks, the post needed more military police officers at the gates. Soldiers were working 12-hour shifts and were exhausted, said Lt. Col. Mike Prendergast, Fort Meade's provost marshal until his term ended last month.
Dedicated, soldiers say
Stewart showed up several times at the gates to check on the soldiers, Prendergast said, and found reinforcements.
"He weighed in very heavily at the chain of command and got us the military manpower we needed," Prendergast said. "Otherwise, we couldn't have done it. Our soldiers would have worked until they dropped."
"Stewart was out there," added Col. Hiram Bell Jr., the commandant of the Defense Information School, which trains military journalists and public information officers at Fort Meade. "And he still goes out there, visiting the gates and talking to the people."
Bell said Stewart worked to ensure Fort Meade's visitors could enter the post and was instrumental in enabling families to get on post for graduation ceremonies. He credited Stewart with keeping the posts' tenants informed during a fast-changing security situation.
"He doesn't have a lot of resources," Bell said. "He has to keep a lot of balls in the air, and he does it very well."
Stewart, who entered active duty in 1977 and rose to deputy chief of an intelligence task force during the Persian Gulf War, has enjoyed a good relationship with top Anne Arundel County officials, including County Executive Janet S. Owens.
Fort Meade had to close the six county schools that sit on the base for three days after the attacks to work out access issues, and Owens praised Stewart for moving quickly to address county concerns. Despite his busy schedule, Stewart frequently attends community meetings in Odenton and recently made it to a groundbreaking for a Anne Arundel Community College facility while he was recovering from surgery.
But recently, Stewart has been criticized by environmental regulators and residents for transferring property for the $3 billion housing development to a private company, Picerne Real Estate Group, without letting the public and the Environmental Protection Agency review the deal. Since 1998, Fort Meade has been on the EPA's list of the nation's hazardous sites for contamination at its landfill, laundry and a marketing facility on the base.
"When it comes to community involvement, what you see is not what you get," said Zoe Draughon, the chair of the base's Restoration Advisory Board, which monitors cleanup activities there.
Stewart said he decided not to make the environmental studies available to the public because he wanted to complete the transfer quickly so Picerne could begin managing the housing. He said the Army intended to share the studies with the board, but got "overwhelmed" by the deal.
Despite the difficulties he faced in three years, Stewart said he accomplished everything he intended to during his tenure at Fort Meade.
"I'm satisfied I've been a good steward," he said.