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SAVANNAH, GA. — After more than a decade of deploying to war, a battle-tested Fort Stewart brigade is preparing for another send-off within the next year. Only this time, it will be for good.
The largest Army post east of the Mississippi River, Fort Stewart is scheduled to lose roughly 1,900 soldiers when its 2nd Brigade gets shuttered as part of the Army’s postwar downsizing. That was supposed to happen in 2017 under plans the Pentagon announced last summer. But the prospect of even deeper manpower cuts across the military has caused the Army to move up the timetable by two years to 2015.
The looming troop losses have stung in neighboring Hinesville, the city outside Fort Stewart’s main gate where businesses have weathered slumping sales during combat deployments, a recession and furloughs of military civilian workers last year forced by budget battles in Washington.
“It’s like getting your butt kicked on your way out the door and you get it kicked one more time before you leave,” said Clay Sikes, a Hinesville real estate developer who sits on the board of a group of civic boosters supporting Fort Stewart.
With the war in Iraq over and combat operations in Afghanistan to cease by the end of this year, the Army is shedding 80,000 soldiers to slim down its total ranks to 490,000. A downsizing plan announced last June called for 10 U.S. bases, including Fort Stewart, to each lose a combat brigade by 2017.
However, the timeline for those reductions was accelerated in the fall as the Army prepares for future budget cuts expected to require even deeper cuts in manpower to 450,000 or fewer soldiers.
“The only place where we could really find that money is through our end strength,” Army Secretary John McHugh told reporters during a visit to Fort Stewart last week. He said the decline in overseas deployments made senior commanders confident the Army could downsize faster without too much risk. “So we moved the target from 2017 to 2015.”
The reductions would still leave Fort Stewart with about 4,000 more soldiers than it had in 2001. But McHugh said there’s no guarantee Fort Stewart won’t lose more soldiers in the coming years.
Cutbacks announced by the Army so far have largely spared Georgia’s other Army posts.
At Fort Benning in Columbus, one of the Army’s training hubs, commanders have said they expect to move soldiers into some jobs held by civilians and perhaps eliminate a small number of civilian jobs altogether as the Army enlists fewer soldiers to train. And Fort Gordon in Augusta is gearing up for a growth spurt after the Army announced in December its Cyber Command will move to the Georgia base.
Fort Stewart plans to deactivate one of its three ground combat brigades assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division. Losing a brigade would normally cost the base about 3,750 soldiers. But the Army plans to offset those losses adding a battalion of 600 to 800 troops to each of the remaining brigades. That would shrink the potential losses by about half.
The Army last summer predicted Fort Stewart would lose 1,400 soldiers, but more recent estimates put the number at 1,900, said Lt. Col. Ben Garrett, a Fort Stewart spokesman. Overall the Army post in southeast Georgia stands to lose about 9 percent of its 21,100 soldiers.
Garrett said 2nd Brigade is tentatively scheduled for deactivation next January. He said its soldiers continue to train so their skills will be sharp when they’re assigned to new units.
Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas said the Army has promised to phase in the cuts over the next year so they don’t all hit at once. And he insisted the economic fallout won’t compare to the years when all three of Fort Stewart’s infantry brigades deployed to Iraq at once.
Sikes disagrees, though he acknowledges he’s still bitter after an extra combat brigade promised by the Army never materialized. Officials estimate taxpayers and private businesses spent $450 million on new construction and improvements to get ready for troops that never arrived.
Sikes says his development company invested $20 million buying land and installing roads and water lines for a 2,700-acre housing development that remains vacant except for 11 lots under construction. He also owns two shopping centers just outside Fort Stewart’s gates. He expects business to suffer as the 2nd Brigade’s soldiers leave next year.
“I can say I think fairly comfortably that the acceleration of a loss of troops is not going to help Hinesville and it’s not going to help our retail,” Sikes said.