Fort Smith sent a message to U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., on Tuesday night (Aug. 21) at the Defending Our Defenders Listening Session.
Hundreds of citizens, including civic leaders, city employees, retired members of the 188th Fighter Wing, and families of currently deployed soldiers in the 188th, crowded into the Arkansas Best Performing Arts Center, a part of the Fort Smith Convention Center, to hear from Forbes, members of the Arkansas Congressional Delegation, and Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, among others.
Speaking to The City Wire backstage prior to the event, Forbes said, “When you come here firsthand and you talk to people, you get a whole lot better perspective than you could ever get just reading materials.”
Forbes serves as the chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Readiness, and for the congressman, being present in Fort Smith means more than just “reading materials” from the Arkansas Delegation.
“This is a community that really does reach out and embrace the 188th. That’s hugely important for us (on the subcommittee). Secondly, we get a great deal of bang for our buck out of the 188th because you’ve got low energy costs, low housing costs, a close training facility. It’s a great facility for us in what it does, and I think we want to make sure that we continue to maintain it.”
When asked how Fort Smith’s community spirit compares to the rest of the country, Forbes called Fort Smith “as good as any part of the country that I’ve seen.”
“We have other parts that are also this good, but unfortunately, we have a lot of places that don’t welcome our bases and facilities, and it’s really important when you get one like this community, which puts its arm around them and says, ‘We want you here.’”
Forbes also took the opportunity to criticize the Pentagon for what he called “arbitrary spending cuts,” both before and during the event.
“We are looking at the impact that these arbitrary Defense cuts are going to mean for the country, and that’s the huge thing. We want to hear what they have to say, because we’ve got a short window to do something about it—about eight legislative days in September. If we fail in doing that, the job cost according to Secretary (of Defense Leon) Panetta is 1.5 million, and according to the Airspace Industry, it’s 2.1 million, across the country. That’s catastrophic. It’s a ripple effect of jobs that would be lost in the country. That’s just huge.”
As a Republican, Forbes admitted that he was a supporter of cutting “wasteful spending,” but maintained that what is at stake for the “arbitrary Defense cuts,” was a “different issue.”
“What we’re against is taking a meat axe to the national defense of the country arbitrarily without any pre-decisional analysis. And in this case, your entire Delegation, Republican and Democrat, has written a letter to the Pentagon saying, ‘Just give us the analysis,’ and there is no analysis.”
Forbes continued: “But it’s not just this. It’s multiplied over and over and over again with the decisions that the Pentagon has been making. That’s not the way to do National Defense in this country. If we have an arbitrary cut in some areas, we don’t lose the country. If you have an arbitrary cut in National Defense, and you’re wrong, you lose the country, and we can’t afford that.”
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, strengthened the emphasis on Forbes’ last point.
“Nobody’s saying, ‘No defense cuts,’ but look, we’re under a looming sequester right now where half of the $1.2 trillion cut by the first of the year — half of it has to come out of Defense Programs. Look, that’s such a deep cut. It will affect infrastructure. It will affect everything about our nation’s Defense capabilities. It’ll affect our ability to project power. It’ll affect our vital security, which is probably the most important Constitutional obligation we have, to protect the nation and provide for the common Defense.”
“We want to make smart cuts,” Womack said. “We want to make sure that the cuts that we’re making are the ones that can be supported with metrics, and we think that we make a good case that the Fort Smith 188th Fighter Wing is not one of those.”
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., agreed.
“The ... message that Congressman Forbes is bringing to the community is that if we go forward with these massive cuts to the Defense, then all bets are off, and we’re going to have such significant cuts that will be very, very difficult. The Secretary of Defense — Secretary Panetta — has said that, along with our generals in the military. So we’re going to have to work really hard to make sure that doesn’t happen and to make sure that we have an adequate funding of our Nation’s Defense.”
PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH
“Peace through Strength,” Boozman calls it. And for the Senator, it doesn’t get more cost effective than Fort Smith.
“What we’re competing against are similar bases throughout the country. It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. It’s a regional thing. And so we’re competing with other bases that feel like their base is superior, and yet when you look at the numbers, the quality of life issues, the school system we’ve got here, the cost-of-living, the labor market, all of those things, we rank very, very well.”
For those in attendance Tuesday night, Boozman’s comments, particularly as related to it being “a regional thing” rang true as seen from an impassioned Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe.
“There are very few places where there are Air Guard units like the 188th that have the proximity to their practice facility and bombing ranges that we have with Chaffee so you don’t have to spend jillions of dollars in jet fuel to get from here to halfway across two states to do your practicing,” Beebe said in his address to those present.
“If we’re talking about saving money, still having professional folks that know what they’re doing in defending our country, and taking care of us in the most economically professional way possible, you cannot beat the 188th.”
Still, Beebe admits that cuts need to be made.
“We all know that we have to get our economic house in order for our children. We have to recognize that because it’s so easy to say, ‘I don’t know what you’re going to cut, but don’t cut mine.’ To be fair to our delegation, and to be fair to ourselves and the American people, we have to acknowledge that.”
Still, Beebe believes that cuts “should not lay disproportionately on our National Guard.”
“Those cuts have to be fair. And if the National Guard in this country is taking a disproportionate share of those cuts, that’s not fair, and that’s not smart.”
Beebe doesn’t believe it’s fair or smart because “the American people get more out of their Defense from the Guard Reserve. With the amount of money that it costs versus what they can do, the Guard Reserves are a great benefit to the taxpayers of the United States of America.”
“And it’s not that they’re not as well-trained and well-equipped,” Beebe said. “Because if they weren’t as well-trained and well-equipped, we wouldn’t be (Internet) streaming to a bunch of them right now in Afghanistan.”
With that, the audience erupted as members of the 188th watched from Afghanistan on a live streaming broadcast over the Internet.
“The majority of these highly trained, highly effectual, highly efficient, dedicated Americans serving, don’t have this as their regular job. They’re going and doing another regular job. And yet they’re still so good that we can send them in harm’s way, side-by-side with our regular forces, and know they’re every bit as good and will do every bit as good. For Republicans and Democrats alike, our Guard is an essential part of the National Defense, and it makes better sense for that cut to be lower percentage-wise.”
Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders iterated many of the same comments prior to the event. When asked where Fort Smith needed to go from here, Sanders said, “We need to continue to support the 188th. We’ll do everything moving forward to continue to provide whatever information Congress needs. We need to keep all of our Congressional Delegation — and they’ve been very supportive, all across the state — supporting the 188th. And we need to continue to provide information to them to help them stay steady with their support.”
HEART OF A REGION
The evening closed with comments from the public, first in the locally produced “Heart of a Region” video, and last, from the audience at the Performing Arts Center.
Participating in both was Ashley Ahlert, whose husband is currently deployed to Afghanistan and was watching Tuesday night.
Ahlert showed tearful support to the 188th as she talked about how her husband was her son’s hero, and questioned why the 188th could be on the chopping block “when another more expensive unit is not qualified to do their job.”
“The numbers don’t lie. My husband and the 188th are doing their duty in service to our country. I hope we’ll make an educated decision and show unity and service to them,” Ahlert said.
• Fort Smith Regional Airport Director John Parker: “The Fort Smith Regional Airport is a great airport. But because of the 188th and the services they provide in general, that makes the Fort Smith Regional Airport an exceptional airport. You cannot discount their presence on the field and the capabilities that they bring on a daily basis.”
• Fort Smith Administrator Ray Gosack: “The 188th has been ranked as one of the top A-10 units in the entire Air Force, and that’s important, considering we’ve had the A-10s for less than five years.”
• First National Bank Corp. President and CEO Sam T. Sicard: “For economic impact, the 188th’s reach is significant. Not just with direct jobs but indirect jobs supporting Fort Smith, Arkansas, with economic impact in retail and housing.”
• Fort Smith Communications Manager Tracy Winchell: “It’s very, very appropriate that this be called the Defending Our Defenders Tour because nobody does that better than here in Fort Smith, Arkansas.”