McDonald: NAS Meridian bracing for BRAC
By By William F. West / community editor
July 29, 2002
Lamar McDonald is confident that Naval Air Station Meridian's future is secure, but he won't officially know until 2005, when the secretary of defense recommends military installations for closure.
McDonald, 75, a Meridian insurance agent, chairs the grass-roots Navy Meridian Team dedicated to making sure NAS remains a vital component of the nation's defense.
NAS Meridian, commissioned in 1961, survived base closure rounds in 1991, 93 and 95 and is home to two squadrons that train flight students. Over the years, the base has grown to include the G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery Naval Reserve and a regional counterdrug training academy for law enforcement personnel.
But NAS Meridian and other installations in Mississippi will again be undergoing much scrutiny by the government's commission on base realignments and closures, also known as BRAC. In an interview with editors of The Meridian Star, McDonald gave the latest news about the Navy Meridian Team as well as NAS Meridian.
The Star: What issues and matters are of concern to your group at this time?
McDonald: Well, a big concern is getting ready for BRAC a very big concern. We thought after Sept. 11 that we ought to be pretty safe, but they're spending so much money for security that they've got to save. And the Department of Defense feels like there's 25 percent excess capacity in the structure.
This base closure is going to be a little different than any one of the others were individually. They originally were trying to have two one in 03 and one in 05. But they put it off to 05, for whatever reason.
There will be nine commissioners named by the president. In the past, there were eight commissioners. Some were named by the president, some by the majority leader, the minority leader, the Speaker of the House, etc. This time, all of them will be named by the president.
The DOD will put up a list of bases that they feel should be closed. In the past, when they did that, the commissioners could put other bases on the list and that happened to us. When they were looking at some other bases to close, then, for whatever reason, the other communities said, You better look at Meridian, too.'
This time, the law does not permit the commission to put bases on the list without a super-majority. So if we escape the first list, then it would be difficult for them to get us on the list. All of our efforts right now are to stay off that original DOD list.
The Star: When do you anticipate getting that list?
McDonald: In December of 03, a draft is going to be made of base selection criteria. That'll be published for 30-day comment. In February of 04, they will finalize the selection criteria.
In February of 04, the Pentagon or Department of Defense will put out what they call their Force Structure Plan, and that is their list of what they feel like they will need in the way of planes, training, etc. In March of 05, the nine-member BRAC commission will be nominated by the president. In May of 05, the secretary of defense will list his recommendation for bases to be closed.
The Star: What do you believe is the future of NAS Meridian and what do you are believe are its assets and its concerns or liabilities?
McDonald: I think that the base, because of our support by our congressmen and our senators, is in great shape with all of the military construction that we have been able to get, with a new administration building, a new air control tower, a new air operations building, with facilities out at the hangars to maintain the T-45 aircraft, housing, a new commissary, a new mess hall the list goes on and on.
And, oh, yes, one of the biggest things we were able to get was nearly $6 million for upgrading our runways. And, frankly, they told us in the 02 budget there was just no way to get it. All of those things are very important. We would like to expand the counterdrug training school to include terrorism training, and there's an effort now being made for that. We would like to expand, if possible, the reserve center.
This city is building a sewer line to the base, which is going to help a great deal. The county is building an access road from the base across to U.S. 45. That will help a great deal. The access road is not started but is funded and will be built. And the sewer line is being built as we speak. We just feel like the more decision-makers we can get here to see what we have, the better we will be.
The Star: You don't see any flies in the ointment or any Achilles heels?
McDonald: No, I do not see any weaknesses in NAS Meridian. I really don't.
The Star: And the naval air station has another area to the north?
McDonald: They have another field, and the 03 budget has money for a new tower there. That's used for touch-and-go training, and they have also put some lights out there that will simulate a carrier landing. They say, Go to the boat.' If they are carrying a squadron or a part of a squadron to qualify on the carrier, they would have to take them down to, say, Jacksonville, and give them some preliminary training for those lights. They've been able to put something up here so now they can do that training here.