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What's in future for Fort Gordon

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POSTED: June 7, 2010 7:00 a.m.
FORT GORDON - Take a drive around the periphery of Fort Gordon and you'd be excused for thinking you have entered small-town America.

Along the edge of the post, multicolored playgrounds intermingle with new two-story homes - the yards perfectly manicured. Pearl white sidewalks line the road for school-age children to walk the short distance to a K-8 school. They dangle from monkey bars as their mothers watch from benches nearby.

It's almost Mayberry.

Even if you somehow missed the men and women in fatigues on a morning run or the massive white satellite dishes, it would be hard to overlook the 160-acre National Security Agency complex that fills the western portion of the post. The 560,000-square-foot white building and its parking lot dominate the landscape.

And it would be hard not to hear the sounds of rifle shots from one of the post's ranges. There can be no doubt you are standing in a vibrant, active and growing town within a town - at once an integral part of the Augusta area and separate.

Fort Gordon contains everything from a major hospital to horse stables, but at its core the post's mission has remained the same for more than 30 years - to train signal soldiers for the Army. Recruits from across the country come to Augusta after basic training to learn how to operate the Army's radio and computer equipment at the Army's Signal Center - the nation's largest communications and information training center.

Currently, more than 1,100 of them are using those skills in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the largest group coming from the 35th Signal Battalion, tasked with setting up and monitoring communication networks around Baghdad.

While communications is still the post's main purpose, other missions and even other branches of the military increasingly are making Fort Gordon their home.

About 1,000 Navy personnel and 600 airmen are stationed at the post.

"It's more than it's ever been," said Col. Glenn Kennedy II, the garrison commander.

He would know. Kennedy, who graduated from Evans High School, lived on post from 1977 to 1982. Today, his Army career, which took him from a tour in Iraq to the White House Communications Agency in Washington, has come full circle. As garrison commander, Kennedy describes himself as a kind of city manager, concerned with the day-to-day operations of the post.

"If you equate Gen. (Jeffrey) Foley to the mayor, then I'm (City Administrator) Fred Russell," Kennedy said.

To him, Fort Gordon is taking on more roles than it did in the past. Part of the reason is that it's cheaper and more efficient to keep units together when possible.

The post has recently become the headquarters of the 7th Signal Command. Its mission: to ensure computer network access for everyone from the battlefield to the White House.

The 7th Signal's new flag officer, Brig. Gen. Jennifer Napper, will join Foley and Brig. Gen. Donald Bradshaw, who oversees the Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center, as the third flag officer at Fort Gordon.

The post is also home to the Warriors Transition Battalion, which acts as a stopping point for soldiers wounded overseas. The battalion helps transition wounded soldiers back into civilian life.

Each new aspect of Fort Gordon is important because it brings more personnel and more long-term staying power for the post, Kennedy said.

"The flavor of Fort Gordon has changed over the years," Kennedy said. "We used to just train for the Army, but now we've gone far beyond that."

Fort Gordon is the Augusta area's largest employer, with about 27,000 military, civilian and contract employees.

Since 2002, it has grown by 6,000 employees, and it continues to get bigger. Estimates put the economic impact of the post on the Augusta area at $1.4 billion.

Fort Gordon has a warm relationship with the larger Augusta community - something not always seen near other military installations.

Thom Tuckey, a former garrison commander who now works for the CSRA Alliance for Fort Gordon, said one needs only to look at the attendance for the recent downtown Thunder Over Augusta Armed Forces Day celebration - which some estimates put at about 70,000 - to see how the community feels about its troops.

"The support that this community gives the installation is tremendous," Tuckey said.

That support can translate into stability for the post. During the last Base Realignment and Closure round, a groundswell of support for the post helped it survive where other Georgia installations - the Navy Supply Corps School in Athens, Fort McPherson and Fort Gillem in Atlanta, and the Naval Air Station Atlanta - did not.

Tuckey said it helps that Augusta is an attractive community for military retirees, who have close ties to Fort Gordon. When patrons come to the post for events such as Oktoberfest, they don't have to drive past a sea of topless bars and pawnshops, which so often surround military facilities.

All of that helps the relationship, too.

"There are communities who don't want the military in their community," Tuckey said.

"They see them as troublemakers, bringing in the topless bars and pawnshops and the kind of businesses they don't want. We are blessed that we don't have that stuff around here to the extent of other installations," Tuckey said.

Kennedy will occasionally drive by the home he grew up in on Fort Gordon.

Not much else on post looks the same as he remembers, Kennedy said.

Over the past decade, the government has invested millions of dollars in Fort Gordon. New and renovated homes, buildings and barracks share space with drab tan buildings from an era long past.

"It's safe to say, and it's fair to say, in the past, there just wasn't a lot of money put into Fort Gordon," Kennedy said.

The Army has adopted a "holistic approach" for families that emphasizes the things they care about - namely schools and quality housing.

"It was an aspect that you could say was overlooked," he said. "But what the Army does realize now is you have to take care of them as a whole."

Upgrades to barracks to make them more like apartments and three new day care centers are among the projects under way. Projects worth about $450 million are ongoing this year alone, according to statistics from the CSRA Alliance for Fort Gordon.

Military intelligence operations and the expansion of those abilities also factor heavily in the post's future.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with the expansion of the NSA operation on post. The $285 million complex has been shrouded in secrecy, but its sheer size is a clue to the importance it will play in the future of Fort Gordon.

According to an NSA release, the men and woman working in the building will essentially be intercepting foreign signals. The information gathered will be analyzed, then sent to U.S. interests abroad and to "national-level decision makers and war fighters."

Across the post from the NSA building, Kennedy hops out of a minivan and looks out at an empty field. Backhoes are parked to his left, but otherwise there is not much to see.

Officials hope to get more funding to eventually create a kind of downtown on the vacant spot, complete with shops, a library, gym and a bowling alley.

Fort Gordon, he said, is here to stay.

"It's growing and it's moving and it's evolving," he said. "What it isn't doing is staying stagnant."


 

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