Regis Jackson felt the effects of Army downsizing on his businesses’ bottom line as soon as Joint Base Lewis-McChord started closing down combat units last year. He had to cut staff as he coped with a loss of $200,000 in annual revenue.
Jackson worries the next round will be even worse for the two pet day care companies he owns at JBLM and in Graham.
“It’s going to have financial ramifications for years” in the South Sound, he said.
Jackson’s concerns about an Army proposal to slash some 11,000 jobs at JBLM over the next five years led him to a town hall in Lakewood on Wednesday.
More than 500 South Sound residents spoke up to protest a broad reduction of active-duty soldiers that’s unfolding at 30 posts and joint bases around the country. In all, as many as 90,000 soldiers may be cut from today’s ranks of 510,000 active-duty troops.
The Army hosted the forum as a last opportunity for the public to give feedback about how the proposed cuts may impact the local economy and community. The base is Pierce County’s largest employer.
At times, the forum held a standing-room only audience at Clover Park Technical College’s McGavick Conference Center. Speakers wanted to assure visiting officials from the Pentagon — led by John P. McLaurin, an aide to the Army’s deputy chief of staff — that Washington state values JBLM.
“The state of Washington fully embraces military families and the military mission” of JBLM, said Gov. Jay Inslee.
The base has already lost about 5,000 soldiers to a previous round of Army downsizing.
The Army is under pressure to reduce its ranks because of the forced federal budget cuts known as sequestration, which would slash defense spending by about $500 billion over 10 years. Congress adopted sequestration in 2011 to compel a long-term budget deal, but lawmakers have neither repealed the forced budget cuts nor adopted a balanced long-term spending plan.
“Like many of you, I am disappointed with Congress’ failure to deal with the consequences of sequestration,” said DuPont Mayor Michael Grayum, who fears that deep cuts at JBLM will devastate businesses in his city and its real estate market.
He and dozens of others who spoke to Army leaders struck similar themes in making their case:
• The Army invested more than $2.4 billion building up JBLM during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Pulling out would be wasteful, they said.
“Why are you taking money away from here? Why are we dumping money here?” asked Joan Fleming of Lakewood, a retired Defense Department employee.
• JBLM has strategic significance for the military because it is the only Army installation west of the Rockies and offers comparably easy access to ports and airfields that could be used to move troops.
“At a distance of only 17 miles, no other installation is closer to a strategic port than Joint Base Lewis-McChord,” said Port of Tacoma Commissioner Dick Marzano.
• Pierce and Thurston counties have higher unemployment rates than the national average of 5.8 percent. The local economy would suffer “recession-like” consequences in a large drawdown. The South Sound would lose about $970 million in annual income if the worst-case cuts happen at JBLM, according to the Defense Department.
“We need the jobs here,” said Lakewood resident Tom James.
• JBLM is an attractive destination for military families because of its proximity to large training areas and its location in an urban setting that offers career opportunities for military spouses and troops at the end of their Army careers.
“Yes, a drawdown will be bad for our community economically,” said Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson. “But more importantly, drawing down JBLM will be bad for our soldiers, our Army and our national defense.”
JBLM currently has 27,600 active-duty soldiers, about 16,000 civilian employees and about 5,000 Air Force personnel. In the worst-case scenario, the base would be left with fewer than 17,000 soldiers — about the same as before the buildup for the Iraq War a dozen years ago.
Some of the most touching comments came late in the three-hour forum when members of two of the South Sound’s highly respected Army families spoke up.
One was Karen George, the fulltime caregiver to retired I Corps Commander and former Lakewood Mayor Lt. Gen. Bill Harrison. She spoke on behalf of Harrison, who attended the forum in his wheelchair.
George implored the Army to retain a large force at JBLM so it has an incentive to maintain services at Madigan Army Medical Center.
“Any reduction in force will impact Madigan’s ability” to care for military families and retired veterans, George said.
Another late comment came from Joan Shalikashvili, the widow of former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili of Steilacoom. She stood for three hours waiting to address senior Army leaders.
Shalikashvili drew a parallel to a time when her husband was asked to advise President George W. Bush’s administration on its plans for the invasion of Iraq. She remembered that her husband came away with a sense that senior civilian officials were not listening to veterans.
“My plea is that when you go back, that you listen to the active-duty military,” she said.