General, community leaders discuss future of National Guard in Lovell

A meeting of the minds Monday afternoon centering around the question of the Lovell community’s interest in maintaining a strong National Guard presence in town was answered with an emphatic and resounding “YES” by those in attendance.

Wyoming Adjutant General Luke Reiner and Public Affairs Officer Samuel House encountered a large group of supporters during a meeting at the Baird-Harston Armory in Lovell Monday, including former members of the Guard and town officials.

National Guard Adjutant General Luke Reiner

Reiner opened the meeting by saying that the Guard is “exploring options” in the Big Horn Basin due to the loss of “forestructure” (units) in the area, noting that C Battery of the 2-300th Field Artillery out of Worland was deactivated during ceremonies Saturday in Worland, though the Worland armory will now become part of the 920th Forward Support Co. with Lovell, Powell and Cody.

Local officials and Guard supporters are concerned because the Guard decided recently to move two full-time positions away from the Lovell Armory to the Worland Armory, leaving the Lovell Armory without a full-time presence, though there are still six full-time Guardsmen in the Forward Maintenance Shop next door.

Reiner said all four of the Basin’s armories are old buildings, but there would not likely be the political will to renovate and maintain all four. He said the Guard is looking into having fewer locations, noting that the Guard over the years has already closed armories in Thermopolis, Riverton, Newcastle, Lusk and Rawlins.

He noted the possibility of eventually having one central armory in the Basin, which, he said, could be in any of the four communities with existing armories, though he said Cody would be an unlikely candidate for renovation because the current armory rests in a restricted air space area near Yellowstone Regional Airport. If the Guard decides to build new, however, Cody would be back in the picture.

Building a new central armory would be paid for on a 75 to 25 percent federal to state split, whereas the cost of renovating an existing armory would fall on the state 100 percent. But retired Guardsman Terry Wilkerson said a renovation to the tune of $5 million would be cheaper to the state than a $40 million new facility.

Reiner said he is very interested in making sure that community wishes are taken into consideration as the decisions are made, saying he hopes the decision made will meet the Guard’s mission for the next 50 to 70 years.

Reiner said he well realizes Lovell’s strong support for the National Guard.

“Lovell has shown great support for a billion years, and we know that will continue,” he said, assuring the audience that “this is all long-term stuff. No decision will be made today. We want to get all the input we can on where we’re going and where the forestructure will be in the Big Horn Basin.”

Prior to the meeting, House had sent out a questionnaire to gauge community support, with community leaders (in this case the Big Horn County Commissioners) asked to answer a series of 10 questions on topics like community assets, the importance of the Guard presence in the community, reaction to possibly losing the armory, value of the Guard, available partnerships and economic impact.

A proud history

“We were the first unit in the Big Horn Basin,” Commissioner Keith Grant pointed out as Reiner started working through the questions. The community has always been very supportive of the Guard and thinks it should continue. We have better support in Lovell than anywhere in the state. We were the first unit to Korea and have sent soldiers to both Iraq conflicts.”

“There’s a lot of history here in Lovell,” Reiner agreed. “It has been a great unit and still is a great unit.”

Added commissioner Jerry Ewen, “The Lovell community has a tremendous tradition of serving in the National Guard. You could capitalize on that as you go forward.”

Although recruiting numbers are down a bit in the area due to a lack of emphasis recently, former longtime Guardsman and recruiter Bruce Jolley said, Lovell was always a prime place for recruitment due to the long community history with the Guard and community support.

“In all the years I was involved in it, this was always one of the strongest areas. The community support here always added to the recruiting.”

Lovell Supt. of Schools Dan Coe, both of whose sons have deployed to Iraq, said recruiting will suffer if there is no longer a Guard presence in the community.

Reiner asked about leaving a central maintenance shop in Lovell for the entire Basin, noting, “If you talk Lovell, it’s been the maintenance center for the Guard in the northern tier. You’ve had great mechanics maintaining the fleet. A variety of possible assets could be involved. It could be a forward maintenance shop of an armory.”

Rep. Elaine Harvey said it would make sense from an efficiency standpoint to centralize both maintenance and an armory in one location, as has been the case in Lovell for years. She argued that Lovell is the most central location of the armory towns, being about 50 miles from Cody and 70 from Worland.

Retired guardsman Rich Fink noted that Lovell offered land for a new maintenance shop years ago, and Mayor Bruce Morrison and members of the town council in attendance said the land adjacent to the Lovell Clay housing project would still be available.

“We want it here,” Morrison said of the armory and maintenance shop. “We donated land for the prison years ago. People here are pretty willing to do things. There’s a lot of pride in the soldiers here.”

Added Lovell Inc. Director Sue Taylor, “We would like to do what we could to mitigate costs,” adding, “If you could furnish us with a list of ideal needs we could respond in a way that makes sense for you.”

Grant said the Guard has been part of the social, economic and cultural way of life in Lovell for nearly a century, and having a full complement of full-time personnel was extremely important to the community.

Other community assets listed by the meeting attendees included:

•The community center for events.

•Ongoing plans for expanded housing.

•A level economy.

•Nearly total replacement of water and sewer lines in town and, thus, a community with the best infrastructure in the state.

•TCT West with its high speed fiber optic system.

•Local training area south of town.

•The current armory and FMS, with the largest fenced motor pool in the Basin.

•A local firing range.

•A planned expansion of North Big Horn Hospital in the near future.

•An airport in Cowley and an airport in Greybull able to handle most military aircraft.

•Excellent emergency response from fire, ambulance, search and rescue and law enforcement.

Strong support

Asking how important the guard is to the community, Reiner said he basically already knows the answer, noting, “As I sit in Cheyenne and look at the landscape, the community that values the National Guard the most is Lovell, from my 25 years.”

Ewen said the support for the Guard in Lovell is very evident, including a huge turnout for Memorial Day services, and Harvey noted how willing the community is to volunteer for almost anything to maintain an amenity, adding, “The Guard is not an amenity, it’s a necessity. Everywhere in the community you see the pride in the military.”

As for recruiting, Rich Fink noted that during its heyday 30-40 years ago, then called Service Battery in Lovell had more than 100 people in the local unit, and most of them were from Lovell, adding, “and we maintained the strength.” Jolley added that the Guard had to place a limit on his Lovell recruiting in order to find balance among the communities.

Looking at the written response from Grant to a question about the community reaction if the Guard was to consolidate facilities outside of Lovell and Grant’s expression of “shock and outrage” that positions were already moved to Worland recently, Reiner said with a smile, “I’m tracking.”

And looking at the next question about how detrimental not having a Guard presence in the community would be, Reiner said he understands “it would be very detrimental.”

“The Guard is a community-based organization,” the general said. “Lovell lives and breathes the National Guard. We’re interested in staying in the communities where we already have a presence.”

Councilman Brian Dickson and Rep. Harvey said that, while the community center is great, the community also needs the armory, saying that the center isn’t enough and isn’t right for certain gatherings and events that the armory is better for.

Asked about concerns, some in the audience asked about National Guard presence at funerals and in parades, and issues like communication and manpower were discussed. Harvey pointing out that it isn’t a matter of finding bodies for a parade, it’s about showing respect.

“We want people to be able to stand up and applaud the men in uniform,” she said. “There are not very many public opportunities to say thank you and applaud you.”

Asked about the timing of the decision to come, Reiner said the community meetings are part of an interim study by the Wyoming Legislature and are part of fact gathering for his recommendation to the governor and the legislature, which would come in September, he said.

Ultimately, the decision on how to proceed will be up to the legislature, he said, adding that the process would take years.

Noting the current lack of full-time personnel at the armory, Fink asked why the Guard couldn’t at least staff the armory a couple of times a week, which Reiner said was a “great idea.”

Reiner concluded the meeting by thanking the community of Lovell for the support it has shown to the Guard and the military in general for many years, from families to employers to community leadership.

By David Peck