<b>May 14, 2005:</b> A DIRECT HIT
The Pentagon recommended closing Fort Monroe and restructuring Fort Eustis on Friday as part of a military base closure plan that would deal a major economic blow to the Virginia Peninsula. The proposed closure of Hampton's historic, moat-encircled Army fort -- and a complex workload shuffle at Fort Eustis -- promise to trigger the loss of more than 12,000 local jobs, Pentagon calculations show.

As a region, Hampton Roads emerged relatively unscathed in the Defense Department proposal because of large job gains slated for Norfolk Naval Station and Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. Langley Air Force Base would get a more modest boost of 749 new jobs. All told, the region's net job loss would be minimal, projections show.

But that estimate masks the huge dislocations that would occur on the Peninsula from the consolidation of Army facilities.

Shutting down Fort Monroe would cost 3,564 military and civilian jobs and indirectly trigger the loss of another 4,418 private-sector jobs as a ripple effect. Restructuring Fort Eustis in Newport News would result in a net loss of 2,152 government jobs and another 2,066 private-sector jobs that depend on business from the Army installation.

Fort Monroe is one of 33 major U.S. domestic bases targeted for closure in what would amount to the largest round of base closures since the current process began in 1988. The 1993 round closed 28 major bases.

Pentagon leaders have pushed hard for this year's closure effort -- the first in a decade -- by saying they must be allowed to shed excess infrastructure to better serve a streamlined fighting force. The proposal, which also restructures 29 major bases and closes or realigns 775 minor ones, is estimated to save $5.5 billion a year when fully implemented.

"The department is confident that these recommendations will improve the posture of U.S. forces for years to come," wrote Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a letter to an independent commission that will review the plan. "Increasing combat effectiveness and transforming U.S. forces are critical if our country is to be able to meet tomorrow's national defense challenges."

The submission of the Pentagon's plan is only the first step in a lengthy process that will preoccupy lawmakers, lobbyists, analysts and independent commissioners for months.

The nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission, appointed by President Bush with input from Congress, will hold public hearings and visit all bases on the Pentagon's list before recommending changes. The commission's revised list must then get approved by both the president and Congress, but neither is free to make changes to the commission's work.

"I committed to the Congress, to the president and to the American people that our deliberations and decisions would be based on the criteria set forth in statute and devoid of politics," said Anthony Principi, the commission chairman, in a written statement. He vowed to oversee a process that would be "open, independent, fair and equitable."

Virginia lawmakers quickly pledged to do what they could to save Fort Monroe and beat back other cuts. But they also acknowledged their powers are relatively limited because of the structure of the base-closure process.

Ultimately, the final list of bases to be closed will be determined by the independent commission -- a mechanism aimed at taking politics out of the economically painful process. Lawmakers can lobby commission members and help communities make their case at public hearings and base visits. They could also vote to reject the entire base-closure list, but they cannot make changes to it.

"The law was drawn so as to eliminate members of Congress," said Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Otherwise, you could never close a thing."

Even so, Warner said he would work with commission members "to point out what we perceive as possible deficiencies" in Pentagon plans.

Asked if he was prepared to lobby to save Fort Monroe, the only Virginia base targeted for closure, Warner said, "I will look at it conscientiously. We'll make sure there's an underlying rationale for the criteria they used."

Removing Fort Monroe from the closure list would require the votes of five of the nine commission members. But by law, the commission can save a base only if it finds that the secretary of defense "deviated substantially" from military criteria.

"I will surely like to save Fort Monroe," said Sen. George Allen, R-Va., who lobbied against a similar round of base closings in 1995, as governor. "But it may be a burden that's very hard to overcome. Maybe it's not. It is very difficult, based on past history."

While the proposed closure disappointed many local officials, it came as no real surprise. Fort Monroe, a prime piece of Hampton's waterfront, has been threatened with closure for at least a decade. It was last recommended for closure in 1993, but was saved after an aggressive lobbying campaign.

"I hope it remains Fort Monroe," said Hampton Mayor Ross A. Kearney II. "And yet, we are prepared to move forward."