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Military Depots Live On

August 17, 1999

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. (AP) _ Tom Cohenour maneuvered his golf cart through a cavernous maintenance building at the Letterkenny Army Depot, past the hulking ghosts of busier days.

He glided past the huge structures where the Army’s tanks were X-rayed and the turntables where specialists repaired equipment. He passed the machine shop that once manufactured any tank part that couldn’t be bought. It now mostly sits idle.

``There were three shifts here. It’s sad, really sad,″ said Cohenour, who earns $44,000 a year supervising mechanics. With the tank jobs gone, only one-fifth of the depot’s past work force remains.

If he worked for a private company that lost a major contract, Cohenour might be out of work, too, and the facility closed. But Letterkenny _ and other depots like it from Virginia to Hawaii _ stay open because members of Congress have the political muscle to protect them.

Defense officials are eager to save money by consolidating the repair, storage and maintenance facilities known as depots and shipyards, which were built to serve a larger military during World War II and the Cold War.

``We could take that money for weapons modernization and quality of life issues like family housing,″ said Randall Yim, the Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary for installations. ``We don’t need massive warehouses any more.″

In a classic case of protect-your-district politics, the bipartisan group of 77 House members _ they call themselves the Depot Caucus _ have blocked the congressional action necessary to close a depot. The caucus includes members of defense and appropriations committees that control spending and military policy, and they can exercise enormous influence over their colleagues on Capitol Hill.

The Defense Department spends about $13 billion a year to store, repair and modernize its equipment. Most of that work was done at the depots in years past; now $6 billion of that money goes to private industry.

The figure would be higher, but the lawmakers of the Depot Caucus pushed through legislation that requires the Defense Department to keep at least 50 percent of maintenance work within the military.

The 18 large depots and several smaller facilities still perform valuable functions, and some have proven they can do work cheaper than private industry. Letterkenny boasts state-of-the-art equipment to repair missiles, for example. But its workforce, almost entirely civilian, has dropped to 1,320 from 6,200 at its peak in the 1960s.

Letterkenny and the Red River Army Depot in Texarkana, Texas, have suffered some of the largest losses since the last base closings in 1995. Defense Department figures show Letterkenny is operating at 73 percent of its capacity; Red River is at only 37 percent.

The Army depot in Anniston, Ala., is now operating at 68 percent of capacity. The Air Force logistics center in Ogden, Utah, is at 53 percent.

Caucus members protecting the depots argue that it is unwise to shut facilities that are essential in war time. A private business can be hit with a strike or have financial problems that could harm the nation in time of crisis, these lawmakers say.

The caucus boasts several influential members, including Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who holds sway over road and transportation projects in every member’s district, and Rep. Tillie Fowler, R-Fla., a member of the House Republican leadership and the Armed Services committee.

Few want to tangle with them. Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., said he was threatened with losing a place on a key House-Senate conference committee when he tried to oppose the group in 1997.

``I would say they use no-holds-barred tactics verging on being ruthless,″ Everett said.

But Mrs. Fowler said the caucus doesn’t bully opponents, and is simply trying to educate colleagues on the importance of the depots.

``I worry that in five years, 10 years they’ll get rid of the depots. We learned that in these battles, we better be prepared,″ she said.

Democrats also are prominent in the depot-saving effort. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who serves on the Appropriations defense and military construction subcommittees, is a caucus member. And Rep. Solomon Ortiz of Texas, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services readiness subcommittee, is co-chairman of the caucus.

Ortiz said the group has contacts throughout depots so it can be alerted to any efforts to cut work. ``We are like the CIA,″ he said.

Pentagon officials say they’re not trying to starve the depots by sending more work to the private sector, but rather are trying to save money.

``The overall policy is to outsource to the extent allowed by law, where it could make sense,″ said Robert Mason, the Pentagon’s assistant deputy secretary who specializes in depot issues.

Letterkenny, a 57-year-old installation in south central Pennsylvania, was built to service a much larger military. Until recently, a huge chunk of its business, in partnership with a private contractor, was converting old tanks into modern, self-propelled howitzers called the Paladin.

Col. Henry W. Suchting III, the depot’s commander, isn’t willing to stand by and watch his facility crumble. He pursues work _ even from nonmilitary sources _ in a manner that would have been unthinkable for an Army officer years ago.

He researches whether private companies would pay to use his facility’s huge tank painting sheds, chrome-plating equipment, or his air conditioning repairmen.

And when Letterkenny didn’t get missile work that depot officials anticipated, Suchting asked Army supervisors to investigate.

Ranae Coheley, 46, a program analyst at the Anniston depot, said the Depot Caucus is fighting for the system that ``supported me my entire lifetime.″ Her father worked there for nearly 40 years, her crane-operator husband has been there for 27 and she has put in 23.

``We just hope the depot will stay open until we have enough years to retire,″ she said.

If the caucus has a say, it might.

``It’s life or death as they see it,″ said former Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., who went against the caucus in 1997 to save jobs in his Sacramento district. ``Their dedication probably increases as they get closer and closer to the grim reaper.″

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