Closed Bases Emerge as Training Centers for Homeland Security

They were built before World War II to boost America's offensive might, but now the priority is defense for some former military bases in the South where law enforcement officers and other first-responders train for the next terrorist attack.

The region's two biggest success stories are the defunct Fort McClellan in Anniston, Ala., and Naval Air Station-Glynco in Brunswick, Ga., both of which have largely shed their military roles but inherited homeland security missions perhaps just as important.

Other bases, including those in Charleston, S.C., Fort Pickett, Va., and Camp Beauregard, La., have undergone similar but smaller transformations over the years, shifting their focus in part from training soldiers to training civilian agents.

``The military bases have been invaluable to the Department of Homeland Security,'' said Marc Short, a spokesman for the department. ``Our training exercises would be far less effective without the ability to simulate catastrophic events.''

These bases have truly come full circle, largely because the need for military units that are more mobile and specialized has coincided with the need for law enforcement training that is more cohesive and consistent. Thus, the Pentagon's loss has been the Department of Homeland Security's gain.

In some cases, barracks once used to house soldiers have been transformed into residence halls for budding firefighters or border agents. Aircraft runways once used for military flight training have been converted into driving tracks to stage high-speed police car chases. And, because military installations require strict environmental compliance and maximum security, the transition has been nearly seamless.

It's also provided an economic safety net for communities that otherwise would have both lost a base and been prohibited from building something in its place because the federal government desired to keep the land vacant.

``That would be the worst-case scenario,'' said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala. ``It'd be bad enough if you decided to relocate the mission, but then if you didn't turn the property over for redevelopment, that would be a one-two punch.''

Such could have been the fate of Fort McClellan in Rogers' district when it was closed in 1995, but Alabama lawmakers fought to transform the defunct military property into a clearinghouse for training state and local first-responders.

Anniston's Center for Domestic Preparedness was in place before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Its funding has more than doubled since.

``I don't think there was ever a feeling here we were stuck with a white elephant,'' said Sherri Sumners, president of Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce. ``People did see there were valuable assets there that if properly developed and marketed could really be a bonus.''

McClellan's post-closure success will likely motivate communities stung by the next round of closures next year, but another base in Brunswick, Ga., used a similar model decades earlier to avoid the wrecking ball.

Although the current political climate is vastly different than in 1972, when Naval Air Station-Glynco was closed, there was one similarity: fear. Just a few years removed from race riots and the assassinations of President Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Congress began to take notice of lax police work and authorized the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

``As they began to shine the light on what law enforcement was doing at the federal level, it was obvious training was woefully inadequate,'' said John Dooher, senior associate for the center.

In 1975, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center was born on the former Glynco property, guaranteeing that law enforcement officers from virtually every agency -- regardless of where they were stationed -- could get top-notch training at one location.

Since then, the center has expanded to several satellite offices, including property on two former bases in Charleston, S.C., which is getting a contract to train prison workers, and Cheltingham, Md., which will handle some firearm and driver training.

``In the South, we have weather where they can train these folks 12 months a year,'' said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. ``In most cases, they're not in urban areas, so they have an ability to have the shooting ranges. I think you'll continue to see that trend.''

In other cases, such as Virginia's Fort Pickett and Louisiana's Camp Beauregard, bases that once trained active military have been transformed into state and National Guard hubs, supplemented with law enforcement training.

Camp Beauregard has been instrumental in U.S. marshal training, and Fort Pickett is home to a training school for Virginia state police, who have access to a mock city for homeland security missions.

Frank Norton, a partner with the Washington firm Hurt, Norton & Associates, which represents communities affected by base realignment and closures, says he expects there will be other former Southern military bases transformed into civilian training centers.

The need is there. The climate is right. The land areas are large but close enough to major urban areas in the mid-Atlantic. And, perhaps most attractive to politicians, the property is already bought.

``Let's face it, trying to buy any land is a very expensive proposition,'' Norton said.