By Derek Turner

It was a public display of affection with a purpose.

On Fort Bliss and in the West Texas city of El Paso that surrounds it, everyone knows the bosses in Washington are staring at their budgets and wondering what happened to the cash. It’s no secret that the dictates have been handed down. The Army must shrink by as many as 80,000 soldiers, and the defense secretary insists that brigades and possibly bases must be eliminated as part of the realignment.

That’s what brought this group together in El Paso in late April. The post’s top military officers and a 60-person contingent of civic and elected leaders from El Paso and the region’s other military communities all came to explain that if cuts are going to be made, it would be foolish to hack too deeply into Bliss.

The post’s leaders reminded the two guests, dispatched from Army headquarters to hear them out, that Fort Bliss is the home of the venerated 1st Armored Division. It’s known as “Old Ironsides” and thousands of its soldiers were deployed at that very moment.

Also included in the long brag list were the 1.2 million acres of training area, complete with 29 “villages” designed to replicate any terrain in which the Army may be asked to fight. And there’s the 343 cubic miles of DOD-controlled air space, enough unfettered sky to rehearse on any aircraft or weapons platform in the military. Units from all over the country leave their own bases, with their lesser capabilities, and come to Fort Bliss to train on everything “from pistols to missiles,” and all of it safely removed from the local population.

Then base leaders joined with the local officials to stress just how vital the military population is to the welfare of the city—a $6 billion annual jolt to the economy—and how the city reciprocates by providing quality schools, affordable housing and entertainment and cultural opportunities.

The outgoing post commander, Major General Dana J.H. Pittard, put it plainly a few weeks later in his farewell speech.

“Fort Bliss is El Paso, and El Paso is Fort Bliss,” he said. “It will always be that way.”

At the April meeting, dubbed the Community Listening Session, the guests scribbled notes throughout the two-hour presentation, but mostly they listened. They did that a lot this spring. The Army scheduled 30 such sessions at bases nationwide, and the refrain was usually the same. Everyone claims that their base and their units are indispensable.

In El Paso, of all places, officials know they can’t assume the power brokers in the Pentagon recognize all that Fort Bliss has to offer the Army and all that the city has invested in Fort Bliss. They were that naive once, and it nearly broke them.

Photo credit Army photo by Sergeant Edward Garibay.

A scout from El Paso’s Troop 4 of the Boy Scouts of America leans over the edge of the Air Assault Tower at Fort Bliss while Cadet Mason P. Livingston, a rappel master and University of Texas at El Paso Reserve Officer Training Corps student, coaches him.

The Base Realignment and Closure process—BRAC, for short—can be terrifying. The word “closure” conjures up images of shuttered and abandoned bases, foreclosed homes and failing businesses, of loans defaulting and debtors closing in. The prospect of “realignment” means uncertainty. A base and a town could be stripped to bare essentials, or they could grow and prosper.

In the last two decades, one round of BRAC brought Fort Bliss to its knees, facing the very real possibility that it might soon cease to exist, but a second round delivered a stay of execution and much more.

It brought growth and new vitality, further uniting the city and the post. Now each draws strength from the other, strength to face what lies ahead.

Two Rounds of BRAC

The numbers didn’t make sense. Something was wrong.

In the mid-1990s, Richard Dayoub owned a large regional travel company, with offices dotting the Southwest. Its headquarters was in El Paso.

“I saw firsthand my business just slide down the hill,” he said. “Almost overnight.”

He had no idea what was happening and reached out to the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, but couldn’t get a straight answer. He kept up his search, asked more questions and followed the trail to Fort Bliss.

Turns out, he said, that Bliss had just lost the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment to Fort Carson, Colorado—the result of the military’s BRAC of 1995. Roughly 5,000 troops, a third of Bliss’ military population, packed up and flew north, taking with them thousands of family members and millions of dollars.

“What I found out is that a good chunk of my leisure clientele came from Fort Bliss,” Dayoub said. “Soldiers would come into our office and buy their vacation travel—their weekends away, their summer vacations—through us because we … just had a very knowledgeable staff.”

Businesses all over El Paso were hurting, which only compounded Dayoub’s troubles.

“They weren’t buying cars, because they weren’t here,” he said. “They weren’t buying homes, because they weren’t here. Of course, then, if they weren’t buying cars and homes and going to the shopping centers, then the other businesses in the community suffered, and those people were spending less money going on vacations or business trips. So we really got hit hard. I can remember that vividly. It decimated my business.”

In the middle of this crucible stood Army Major General Jack Costello, recently installed as commander of Fort Bliss. He sat down with Silvestre Reyes, El Paso’s congressional representative, as well as Donald Margo, the area’s civilian aide to the secretary of the Army, and with members of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce. Among them was Dayoub, who had recently begun volunteering at the chamber.

Costello was no fatalist, but his message was harsh. He said the Army might yet close Fort Bliss.

“It was almost unfathomable to us because we thought—wrong at the time—that the Department of Defense and Department of the Army in particular knew just what an asset they had here,” said Dayoub, an Air Force veteran.

In the years that followed the 1995 BRAC, Costello and the chamber launched preemptive strikes to ensure the future of Bliss and to restore the soul of El Paso.

They first had to impress upon the citizens and local leaders in El Paso the seriousness of the situation, that the post had an extraordinary impact on the prosperity of those outside its gates.

It wasn’t an overnight success, but it was a success. By the time another round of BRAC neared in the early 2000s, Fort Bliss and the city of El Paso were working as one. They knew they had a great deal to offer the Army. The job was to make sure the Army knew it.

Base and city leaders made regular trips to Washington to lobby not only for survival but for growth. By then, Dayoub, whose business eventually recovered, was the chamber president and CEO.

When he and others went to Washington to speak with Army leaders, he boasted of some $750 million in taxpayer-approved bonds to build schools in three area districts. He talked of road projects and housing.

At a meeting in the Pentagon, after hearing out the Bliss/El Paso contingent, an Army general wasn’t swayed.

“You know, guys, I understand your concerns, but you don’t have any water,” Dayoub recalled the general saying.

“How can you justify us making a commitment to expand or to recommend expansion, let alone even keeping you in place, when you have no water?”

Yes, Fort Bliss is in the desert. The landscape is many shades of brown. And yes, fresh water is scarce. But how could this general look them in the eyes and tell them they had no water?

“No, sir,” Dayoub responded. “We just completed [an agreement to build] the world’s largest inland desalination plant. And oh, by the way, the Army is a partner.”

Dayoub went on to describe the project, developed in tandem with the Army’s Installation Management Command, which would ensure water would not be a concern for decades to come. It was news to the general.

In May 2005, the day after the specifics of the BRAC were revealed, a front-page headline in the El Paso Times announced: “BLISS WINS BIG.”

‘Old Ironsides’ Moves In

When all the shuffling was done—a years-long process—the post welcomed roughly 20,000 soldiers with the 1st Armored Division. With them came about 27,000 family members, nearly 10,000 of them school-aged children.

The installation, long built around the air-defense community, evolved as it took in four brigade combat teams and a combat aviation brigade previously based at Fort Hood, Texas.

Bliss had not only recovered what was lost a decade earlier, it had essentially tripled its population.

To accommodate the influx, the post embarked on a massive expansion, adding everything from office buildings and aircraft hangers to housing and shopping areas. The effort continues today.

Off base, the new arrivals spurred a housing boom, and in the ensuing years citizens approved taxpayer funds to build or improve schools and roads, parks and ball fields, museums and the local zoo.

Now every unit on post is partnered with a local school. Soldiers visit to talk about the Army experience or help students with school projects, said base spokesman Major Joseph Buccino. Virtually every ceremony or celebration in El Paso is punctuated by the sounds of the 1st Armored Division band.

The union between Bliss and El Paso grew tighter still in 2010 when Pittard took over as commanding general. No one had to tell him about the importance of the Army’s relationship with the city. Pittard grew up in El Paso. It’s his town, and he is as proud of his town as he is of his Army.

His faith in each led him to champion a pair of initiatives built on the premise that the best way for Fort Bliss to share its story is to open its doors. In October 2011, the post instituted an easy access policy that allowed citizens to enter Bliss simply by showing a valid driver’s license at the gate. This type of access was common on military bases before 9/11. Since then, it’s extremely rare.

“Civilians started taking advantage of it immediately,” Buccino said. “They can come on here, go to the movies, come to see our gyms—you don’t have to be a military ID cardholder to use any of the gyms here. I think that’s really tightened our bond with El Paso.”

It wasn’t without pushback, according to Tom Thomas, who, in his job as civilian aide to the secretary of the Army, acts as a liaison between the post and the city.

“Pretty much right after he came, he decided that he wanted to open it up. And he did. He opened it up,” Thomas said. “Everybody told him, ‘Oh, there’ll be more crime on Fort Bliss’ and none of that happened. It worked beautifully.”

Part of that fear, Buccino said, came from the belief that El Paso itself is unsafe. It lies just north of Juarez, Mexico, where a bloody drug war pitted the Sinaloa Cartel against the Juarez Cartel. But that violence rarely spilled across the border and crime on the Mexican side is now declining. In fact, for three years running, El Paso has been named the nation’s safest large city in rankings published by Congressional Quarterly and based on FBI crime data.

To counter misperceptions, Pittard knew that he needed help spreading his message. So after easing access to the base for civilians, he also opened it up for media. At most installations, reporters are met at the gate and escorted by handlers from the public affairs office. At Bliss, they can go right onto the post and start reporting.

“There were a lot of people opposed to it. It took me about three months, but I fought for it,” Buccino said. “Once we opened it up, we started getting all these positive media hits about our Wellness Fusion program, how we take care of soldiers, the new aquatics center, things like that. And I knew that would happen. I knew it would be a natural flow from opening this up to the media.”

Photo credit Army photo

Private Demarcus Calhoun reads Dr. Seuss to a class of bilingual second graders at Frank Macias Elementary School in El Paso on March 4.

During Pittard’s tenure, President Barack Obama visited Bliss three times, more than any other base. And former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called it “the premier post in America.”

The unrestrained openness wasn’t without its pitfalls, and Pittard took heat for the worst of them. The 1st AD brought with it thousands of young combat veterans and all the problems that follow soldiers home from war. Suicide became a significant problem at Fort Bliss, and in January 2012, reeling from attending a memorial service, Pittard vented in his official blog.

Among other things, Pittard called suicide “an absolutely selfish act.”

“Be an adult, act like an adult,” he wrote, “and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.”

The backlash was immediate and fierce. The blog was taken down and Pittard retracted his statement. But instead of allowing controversy to hang like a storm cloud over the base, Pittard and his public affairs team seized the spotlight and used it to raise awareness for the innovative efforts that Bliss was undertaking to battle the invisible wounds of war.

Among them, Bliss’ Wellness Fusion Center coordinates a wide range of programs aimed at equipping soldiers and families to handle the stressors that arise from more than a decade of war.

When Pittard left Fort Bliss in May, bound for his next position at Fort Eustis, Virginia, he drove through the gates, past signs reminding all that “Seeking help is a strength.”

New Leader, New Challenges

Pittard was popular not only among soldiers, but among community leaders. He was one of their own.

Congressman Beto O’Rourke called him a “historic leader of Fort Bliss.”

The blow of Pittard’s departure was softened some because many view his replacement, Major General Sean MacFarland as the next best thing.

Sure, he’s from New York but he was smart enough to marry an El Paso native. His history with Fort Bliss goes back generations. His grandfather served there and is buried in El Paso.

Fort Bliss was MacFarland’s first duty station after graduating from West Point in 1981, where he was classmates with Pittard. And he has a recent history at the post, having served as commander of the Bliss-based Joint Task Force-North from 2008 to 2010.

“What General Pittard did for Fort Bliss was exactly the right thing for the time he was here,” he said during his first news conference as commander. “I’ll be here during a different time, during sequestration and force-structure reductions and possibly introducing additional capabilities or opportunities here at Fort Bliss.”

MacFarland said he had many things to worry about, but the relationship with the city of El Paso was not high on his list. The relationship is strong, he said, and it continues to strengthen.

“We’re very excited about having him back,” Dayoub said. “He already knows and understands the unique quality of the community and the unique partnership of how we rely on each other.”

MacFarland had been in command barely a month when General Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, called a news conference in the Pentagon to announce that the service was eliminating a dozen of its 45 brigade combat teams.

The cuts, which won’t be fully enacted for several years, would come from 10 bases. They were listed in alphabetical order. The first was Fort Bliss.

The 1st Armored Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team—comprising 3,500 soldiers—will deploy to Afghanistan later this year, as scheduled. At some point following its return, it will cease to exist.

That was the bad news, Buccino told a media gathering a day after the announcement. Then he laid out the silver lining.

Of the 3,500 soldiers lost in this move, 2,100 of them will be absorbed into Bliss’ three remaining brigade combat teams. The other 1,400 will leave the installation.

However, he said, Bliss would be gaining seven new company-sized units, including a missile defense battery. Those units would bring 650 soldiers to Fort Bliss, which means that the net loss in the wake of Odierno’s announcement was a mere 750 soldiers.

At the end of April’s Community Listening Session, Dayoub said, those lobbying for Bliss couldn’t be described as feeling confident.

“I would characterize that more accurately as hopeful,” he said, “knowing that we had done our very best.”

To lose 750 soldiers wasn’t the best-case scenario, but it wasn’t far off.

Dayoub cautions that the Army’s belt tightening is not finished. The cuts announced in June don’t reflect the automatic budget cuts mandated by sequestration, which would have the military cut an additional $500 billion in spending by 2022.

“It’s imperative,” Dayoub said, “that we not become complacent, but instead remain vigilant and alert.”

The message remains the same: Fort Bliss and El Paso offer assets to the Army that can’t be matched elsewhere, and certainly not at other major bases where the military and civilian communities coexist only grudgingly.

No one is sure yet when or where the cleaver may fall. So in El Paso, they keep telling their story.

–Derek Turner is a freelance writer and a former senior editor of On Patrol.