Changing with the times

Base: Fort Meade adapts to new challenges with improved housing options and greater security measures.

May 16, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Visitors to Fort Meade may have noticed that parts of the Odenton base look less like the munitions training ground of yesteryear and more like leafy subdivisions.

A $2 billion overhaul of out-of-date military housing is bringing 3,000 new homes to the post that will look similar to neighborhoods in nearby Columbia. The new homes will include carpeting, master bedrooms and multiple bathrooms. They will replace homes built in the 1940s that lacked such amenities and were rife with problems, among them lead and asbestos.

"Families don't need another quarters. Families need a place to call home," Fort Meade's commander, Col. John W. Ives, told The Sun in a recent interview. "And for their service, they deserve it."

The housing overhaul is an acknowledgement of a changing military culture. Two-thirds of those in the military are married when they join the armed forces, and many have children. They want to live in the comforts they enjoyed off-base, but in the fast-growing Washington suburbs, they can't afford such luxuries.

Soldiers will use their base housing allowances for the new homes, which Rhode Island-based Picerne Military Housing is building under a public-private partnership with Fort Meade. The homes are divided into neighborhoods, each with a distinct architectural style, with the larger homes going to top officers and the smaller ones for the enlisted.

Neighborhood centers

Picerne also is building neighborhood centers for the homes. The first center, which opened late last year, includes a wide-screen television, pool table, gymnasium and well-lighted playroom.

The 5,000-acre base, which includes the National Security Agency, long has been an attractive destination for the thousands of military retirees who live nearby. It includes a bowling center, golf course, commissary and officers club.

Since August 2001, the base has been a restricted-access post. Visitors need a military escort or military identification to enter.

But Ives has tried not to let those restrictions hamper his efforts to reach out to the community. In July, Fort Meade briefly showed its old self for the annual Twilight Tattoo, a musical chronicle of the Army's 300-year history that officials said is meant to be shared with the civilian public. Hundreds of non-military visitors came to the base to watch the re-enactments.

It was the second time that month that Fort Meade looked like an open campus. The first time was for Meadefest, a Fourth of July celebration.

Rural beginnings

Fort Meade didn't have much of a community to reach out to when it was established. Named Camp Meade, after Civil War Gen. George G. Meade, the base was nestled in a rural area. During World War I and World War II, thousands of troops passed through the base for training.

The campus included an airfield, a munitions training ground and shooting ranges. Now, about 25,000 civilians and 10,000 military personnel work at Fort Meade.

In addition to the NSA, the base is home to the Environmental Protection Agency's regional office and the Defense Information School, where journalists and public affairs officers from all services train.

The EPA placed Fort Meade on its Superfund list of the nation's most toxic sites in 1998, and since then the Army has been working to clean it up.

Fort Meade also has shrunk over the past two decades. In 1988, the first Base Realignment and Closure Act forced Fort Meade to give up more than half of its land. The Army transferred the bulk of that -- 7,600 acres -- to the Department of the Interior to create the Patuxent Research Refuge. About 400 acres went to Anne Arundel County, which turned it into Tipton Airport.

Fort Meade now is wrestling with a different issue: cuts in staff. This year, close to 300 workers in the logistics and public works department could lose their jobs as a result of a privatization effort.

In addition, the base's emergency medical service has considered changing from a 24-hour 911 response to a reduced schedule.

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