Frontier post to artillery school, Fort Sill vital to region

Thursday, February 24th 2005, 6:09 am
By: News On 6

FORT SILL, Okla. (AP) _ Long before Oklahoma was a state, U.S. Army cavalry staged clashes with Indian tribes from a frontier camp of crude stone buildings.

Many of those buildings still stand at what became known as Fort Sill, even though the post has shaken off its frontier image to become one of the Army's most advanced training centers.

Today, 136-year-old Fort Sill is an icon in the rich tradition of the Army. But its future remains uncertain as the Department of Defense prepares for the first round of base closures in a decade.

State officials are optimistic Oklahoma can escape unscathed from the process that begins next month, but no one knows what bases might be targeted. And ``nothing can be taken for granted,'' said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

``The stakes are just too important and it's going to come down to some judgment calls,'' he said. ``And some are going to be very close calls.''

Home of the Army and Marine Corps Field Artillery Center and School, Fort Sill is the primary joint training facility for field artillery soldiers and Marines.

Each year, more than 17,000 people are trained at Fort Sill in artillery tactics and procedures.

The post also is one of the Army's five basic training centers and handles an average of 7,786 new recruits each year. National Guard reservists, as well as more than 3,400 noncommissioned officers, train here each year in artillery and leadership skills. U.S. instructors also prepare artillerymen from allies that include Germany, Great Britain, France, Canada and South Korea.

And Fort Sill is the headquarters of the III Armored Corps Artillery _ the largest concentration of artillery firepower in the free world.

The post's multifaceted mission has made it the lifeblood of southwest Oklahoma, pumping about $1.3 billion into the local economy each year.

More than 22,000 military and civilian workers are employed at Fort Sill. But more than 65,000 workers, military retirees and their dependents _ more than half of the population of nearby Lawton and the surrounding area _ have direct economic links to the post.

``I really feel the positives that all of our facilities offer, the uniqueness of their missions,'' Cole said. ``We've done it all and we continue to do that and the military knows that.''

Millions of dollars of improvements have been pumped into the base, including development of an urban assault course and better military housing. But Cole said ``you can't bet on anything'' in the Base Realignment and Closure process.

``I think in this business it's wise to be paranoid,'' he said. ``We're going to be worried until we get through the process.''

Distant thunder echoes from a cloudless sky through the sprawling complex of historic structures and modern classroom buildings at Fort Sill.

The cannon fire recalls the nickname given Fort Sill's III Armored Corps Artillery as it fought in the forests and villages of Europe during World War II: ``Phantom Thunder.''

``I absolutely see us as an enduring installation,'' said Fort Sill commander Maj. Gen. David P. Valcourt, who is prohibited by Army rules from discussing the BRAC process.

The Pentagon wants to save money by training members of various military branches at a single location, something Fort Sill has done for decades.

The first Army artillery batteries arrived at Fort Sill in 1902, five years before statehood, and the post has been a joint training center since the first Marine detachment reported for duty in 1951.

Members of the Air Force have also trained at Fort Sill and may return this year for joint instruction, Valcourt said.

``We're seeing today great synergy across the services,'' he said.

Fort Sill's proximity to Altus and Tinker Air Force bases makes it a convenient hub for joint training exercises, said George Durham, a civilian worker with the Army's Joint Fires and Effects Trainer System.

Soldiers learn to call in an artillery strike through practice on a system that's part video game and part Hollywood in its simulation of combat conditions.

``No one service really fights by themselves,'' Durham said. ``The planners always plan on joint fires. When you get down to it, everybody needs help.''

Traditional outdoor exercises are also part of the training at Fort Sill.

In a secluded meadow surrounded by trees and underbrush, Capt. Bruce Townley leads soldiers dressed in camouflage and equipped with gas masks to liberate a mock village from insurgents. The training exercise is not unlike missions that soldiers undertake almost daily in Iraq.

``They've taken what they've learned in combat and brought it in here,'' Townley said. ``This is something that they're going to use.''

Retired Army Col. George Moses, who is coordinating efforts to expand Fort Sill's mission, called the base ``a damn good bargain.''

``The Army places high value on Fort Sill. They want to keep what they have here. And we have space to accommodate a whole lot more,'' he said.

Fort Sill, comprised of almost 94,000 acres, includes more than 37,000 acres of impact ranges for artillery fire and launching rockets and missiles.

``We've got things they can't buy elsewhere _ right in the center of the country,'' Moses said.