By Lisa Seiser
The Daily Union
FORT RILEY — For about two days, there was a call out to local stakeholders and citizens to show up in force at Fort Riley Thursday morning for an Army Force Structure and Stationing Listening Session.
It appears area people heard the message loud and clear.
An estimated 350 people attended a 90-minute long discussion and listening session held at the 1st Infantry Division Headquarters building.
Representatives from Dickinson County Commission, USD 435 and the Abilene City Commission were in attendance.
According to information sent out, community attendance was expected to be important as the Army makes decisions on future stationing levels during the expected drawdown of troop levels.
Brig. Gen. Don MacWillie explained the importance of the meeting with regard to senior Army leadership and future decisions that could impact Fort Riley.
“They want to listen to your input,” he said. “That input will be taken back to the top leadership of the Army. This talk will be taken unfiltered to the senior leadership.”
MacWillie said he also would be writing to the Army about the support received.
“They recognize the importance of community support,” he told the crowd. “You have given and supported Fort Riley during the high times and the low times. You have taken care of our families and soldiers and it is critically important your voices are heard.”
Junction City Area Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Council Director John Seitz wrote in an email earlier in the week that “numbers will be very important to show our community interest in Fort Riley and what happens as the Army draws down the force.”
Through budget controls created in 2011, there will be a reduction in Army forces of 80,000 soldiers by 2017, a drop of 14 percent to 490,000.
MacWillie was clear in his statement that this drawdown of troops will likely be mostly through attrition and has nothing to do with sequestration and base realignment and closure.
He said if the 2014 budget calls for greater cuts, there may be more adjustments that need to be made.
“We have been talking for a year or so,” he said. “We’ve been talking about how the environment has changed in the nation and how our Army is changing. We are no longer in Iraq and the drawdown in Afghanistan. There are very tough decisions to be made to the force structure.”
John Armbrust, the director of the Governor’s Military Council, said Fort Riley has a “huge economic impact” on the area. He talked about the options, one which is unlikely to happen — growth.
“We looked at numbers and no matter what happens, it has an impact on our community,” Armbrust said.
He said if 10 to 1,000 troops are lost, “we will be impacted.” But, he said if the range is between 750 and 1,000, the partnership can “remain strong.”
“We know if we get above those numbers, there will be fairly key impacts,” Armbrust said.
He talked about the impacts of a downsized Fort Riley to include increased housing vacancy rates, property tax impacts, reduction in staffing at schools and possible facility closures because of less students, daily air service could be jeopardized and reduced public transportation service and businesses unable to sustain their workforce at current levels.
Those in attendance, which included area community elected officials, state legislators and business leaders, mostly expressed their support for Fort Riley and the soldiers stationed in the area.
“You have always given and supported Fort Riley,” MacWillie told the standing room only crowd. “That will continue to be critically important as decisions are made. Your voices will be heard.”
Most of the voices heard Thursday morning were positives for Fort Riley and the relationship Fort Riley has with its surrounding communities.
Junction City Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Weigand reminded people in attendance that Junction City is Fort Riley’s hometown.
He said it would be a completely different community without the soldiers and the post.
“We can’t imagine a day without Fort Riley,” Weigand said. “We love our soldiers and we love Fort Riley.”
Junction City Vice Mayor Pat Landes said nobody in the room should be thinking about “doom and gloom.” “We’re ready for more troops,” he said with excitement. “Bring them, we are ready. Bring them on.”
At the end of the 90-minute session, which was first expected to last an hour, MacWillie thanked those who came out.
“Tough decisions will have to be made,” he said. “Your voices, your notes, your questions, your care, your love will be taken to the leadership of the Army. Together, we will go down this path.”
About 30 people expressed their opinions about the importance of Fort Riley and its impact on the future of the area, region and state.
“This is home and this will always be home,” MacWillie said at the end of the session. “You will do right and we will do right. On behalf of the 19,000 soldiers here, we know you support us.”
The morning didn’t go without its problems. The event started about 10 minutes late. Then, there were microphone problems just minutes before MacWillie started his presentation.
The approximate 70 people in the overflow room couldn’t hear, so they were filtered into the main room to attend.
But that didn’t dampen the spirits of those in attendance or MacWillie.
“It is fitting for the day,” he said as some of those from the overflow room filed it and found spots to sit or stand. “It’s snowing, it’s April, the microphones aren’t working.
“But this is still the best division in the United States Army,” he finished as the crowd erupted with applause.