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Army Command Passes On La., Chooses Texas; 'We Were Shafted,' Congressman Says
By Paul Purpura
August 4, 2002
Louisiana's hopes to lure a major Army command appear to have been dashed, as U.S. Army South, which controls an array of operations in the Caribbean Sea and Central and South America, is going to Texas, U.S. Rep. David Vitter said last week.
Although the Army says it has made no decisions on Army South's relocation from Puerto Rico , Vitter said he was told of the move during a July 25 meeting with senior Army leaders in Washington.
"We were shafted," said Vitter, R-Metairie.
Vitter said the Army previously assured states competing for the headquarters that the relocation decision would be made through a "fair and open process."
But the process, Vitter said, "was thrown out the window." He said he was told that Army South headquarters, and the military and civilian jobs that go with it, will be moved to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio in less than a year.
He based the comments on a meeting he had with Mario Fiore, the Army's assistant secretary for installations and environment, and Brig. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, deputy director of the strategy, plans and policy directorate.
"It was a very disappointing and frustrating meeting," Vitter said.
The command is responsible for counternarcotics, humanitarian and other operations in an area encompassing 15.1 million square miles and 32 countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America. The headquarters has a staff of about 1,260 personnel, mostly civilians, but the staff size is expected to be reduced by about 15 percent when it is moved, Army officials said. It reportedly pumps $160 million annually into Puerto Rico 's economy.
The Army had been considering moving Army South headquarters for about a year because of Puerto Rican opposition to Navy training exercises on the island of Vieques off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico .
The Army, meanwhile, says no decisions have been made.
"The need to restation the (Army South) headquarters is clear," said Army spokesman Maj. Chris Conway. "We can gain efficiencies, cut costs, reduce personnel slots, improve quality of life and improve mission support by relocating it. However, the decision process for the relocation of (Army South) is not yet complete."
Louisiana, which has been trying to attract Army South since January, was among a handful of Southern states vying to lure the command's headquarters, including Texas, Mississippi and a joint team from Alabama and Georgia.
The competition has been contentious. Hearing that Army South was headed to Texas, U.S. Rep. Mac Collins, R-Ga., has amended defense- related spending legislation to include a provision that no money be used to move the command. Collins wants Army South moved to Fort Benning, an aide said.
In Louisiana, the Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base in Belle Chasse and Fort Polk near Leesville have been suggested as possible sites for Army South.
As recently as two weeks ago, business and political leaders in Louisiana believed that the state had a shot at the command and that the Army would release criteria on which it would base its decision by the end of July. The criteria have not been released.
"Obviously, we're very disappointed," said Frank Uddo, chairman of the Mayor's Military Advisory Committee of Greater New Orleans. "No. 1, it seems there is a decision. Secondly, there was a decision made outside the light of day."
In their campaign, business and political leaders have touted Louisiana's ties to Latin America, with 14 Latin American consulates located in New Orleans, a large port, large military commands already located in the city and the military aviation facilities at the air station in Belle Chasse.
The state also was prepared to spend about $20 million to build facilities for Army South. That money was never appropriated by the Legislature, but the Army was "keenly aware of Louisiana's strong interest," said state Rep. Hunt Downer, R-Houma.
The recruiting effort, led by the state's congressional delegates, included Gov. Foster, who on Feb. 7 wrote a letter to President Bush in an attempt to ensure that Louisiana would be a contender for Army South. In turn, an Army legislative liaison called Downer and assured him that criteria would be released, said Downer, a colonel in the Army National Guard.
Also, Louisiana's members of the U.S. House and Senate delegations wrote two letters to Army Secretary Thomas White, the latest dated July 17, in which the representatives asked for the criteria on which the Army South decision would be made. Vitter said that the Army used a "quick and secretive process" in deciding Army South's location, and the criteria were never released.
"On behalf of the state, I am frustrated," Downer said. "All we wanted was a seat at the table."
Losing Army South marks the second time in recent years that military supporters in Louisiana lost a big command. In the mid- 1990s, local leaders tried to lure the U.S. Southern Command to the state, and were prepared to spend $50 million to build a facility for the headquarters, Downer said. Louisiana was said to be a finalist in the competition, second only to Miami, where the Southern Command moved. Army South is the Army's component of the Southern Command.