`Let's move now'

Base realignment means major family rearrangement for thousands headed to Md. from Fort Monmouth, N.J.

June 22, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

FORT MONMOUTH, N.J. -- Kathy Sukiennik's family has been taking photos in front of the fireplace at the officers' club here since 1952, the year her father, Louis Welch, an Army captain, and her mother, Kay, a civilian file clerk, married in a Catholic Mass at Chapel No. 2 and held their reception in the club's room with the fireplace.

After the wedding, her family moved several times - to Iran, Germany and Arizona - but always returned to assignments at the fort, and to the fireplace inside the aristocratic, English Tudor mansion, once a 1920s private country club complete with polo fields and an airplane landing strip.

Sukiennik's next move will be different, likely marking an end to family photos in front of the fireplace.

As part of the national realignment of military bases, the Army will move thousands of jobs, including her husband Bob's civilian electrical engineering post, to Maryland and close the more than 1,000-acre base.

The fort employs more than 7,500 federal workers and on-post contractors, many of whom will be assigned to Harford County's Aberdeen Proving Ground by 2011.

"The whole process is like slowly ripping off a Band-Aid," Sukiennik said. "It's painful, so my attitude is, let's get it over with. Let's move now."

The Sukienniks have many questions: about relocation benefits, schools, real estate - and what her husband's job will be like at Aberdeen.

So far, no one has told the Sukienniks when they'll have to move, what expenses the Army will cover or the availability of offices at Aberdeen.

Many hope to receive answers at a relocation expo at Fort Monmouth that begins today and will include presentations from Maryland, Harford County and Cecil County officials.

Organizers say they expect more than 4,000 people to attend.

Schools, commutes

The Sukienniks are concerned about many things: the rising costs of homes in areas around Aberdeen that offer good schools, the possibility of her husband having a long commute to work if they move into an area with good schools, and the possibility that the value of their $650,000 Shrewsbury, N.J., home will plummet as many of their neighbors make the same journey south.

But given Sukiennik's strong ties to the fort - she worked there for 20 years and met her husband on the job - she is surprisingly eager to move to Maryland.

She views the state as offering a lower cost of living and lower property taxes, which might allow her to quit her part-time job or put more money away for the college education of her two children.

Sukeinnik's roots at the fort go deep - her two brothers also live in the area and they share the responsibility of caring for their mother, who is 80.

Her mother once volunteered for the Red Cross, and Sukiennik's sister, Joan, worked as a candy-striper at the base's Patterson Army Hospital while she was in high school.

When her father would hear the bugle in the late afternoon, he would pull over the family's 1963 Pontiac station wagon. Everyone would get out, face the music and place their hands over their hearts as part of the end-of-business-day military ritual.

Soldiers are rare

Because Fort Monmouth's high-tech mission relies heavily on existing commercial technology and contractors, it is rare to see a soldier in uniform on the base - 467 military personnel are stationed there.

Security requirements after the Sept. 11 attacks have cut off the fort from the public, making it seem as if New York City, which is about an hour north, is slowly usurping the base's identity.

The turnover of students at Sukiennik's daughter's school was 2.3 percent during the 2004-2005 school year, 10 percent below the state average - a testament to the receding presence of soldiers on the base and the high quality of life in the area.

On statewide assessment tests that year, 94.8 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient or better in language arts.

For every area resident with a connection to the fort, there is another who takes the North Jersey Coast Line train into Manhattan. Given the engineering skills of Fort Monmouth's workers, many of them believe that employers in the New York region will welcome them should they choose to stay.

Gary Martin, 44, manages thousands of employees at Fort Monmouth, including Kathy's husband. But Martin's offices, like many at Monmouth, are not plush. A mousetrap lies next to his office cabinet.

A short man with glasses and a chocolate-brown goatee, Martin is a former Army lieutenant from northern Maine. He grew up in a small town within sight of Canada.

Although he has been a civilian engineer for 22 years, the Army has never really left his blood.

"I'll live wherever the Army sends me," he says, leaning back in his chair at the small, round conference table in his office.

He knows, however, that not all of his employees are as flexible. He groups his 4,000-member staff, contractors included, into three categories.

Many of the older guys - the staff is mostly male - are already eligible to retire or nearing eligibility.

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