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Citizens Center packed for South Gate meeting

Photo by Shari Harris
More citizens filed in after this image was captured Thursday before the meeting, packing the back of the Citizens Center. All were eager to ensure Army leaders heard their concerns.

By Shari Harris, Publisher

A meeting was held Thursday, January 25, 2024, at the Citizens Center of Northwest Texas County, in Roby, regarding changes to hours for the South Gate of Fort Leonard Wood. Active and retired military and their families, civilians who work on the Fort, emergency responders, business owners, school representatives, real estate agents and others packed the building, eager to hear what would be said about the closings, and equally interested in expressing their own concerns.

U.S. Representative Mark Alford, 4th Congressional District of Missouri, and member of the House Committee on Armed Services, spoke about the need for recruitment, with the Army’s goal missed by 25 percent. Training numbers are down and this creates a ripple effect, he explained.

Photo by Shari Harris
Maj. Gen. Beck, Commanding General of Fort Leonard Wood, shared the Army’s reasons for the changes with the public. Seated behind Beck is U.S. Rep. Mark Alford, and standing at the right of the photo is Command Sgt. Maj. Jorge Arzabala.

Maj. Gen. Christopher Beck, Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and Fort Leonard Wood Commanding General, expressed his gratitude for having the forum to explain the decision and to hear community feedback. He reported that during the Army’s study of the gate, they determined about 190 soldiers, 160 Department of the Army civilians, and 413 beneficiaries for the hospital, mostly retirees, utilize the South Gate. The average use between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. was 32 people coming onto the base and 12 exiting.

Beck explained the decision to close the South Gate during overnight hours was made based on difficulties staffing the gate with the required two guard minimum without impacting the mission of the fort.

The Army was authorized for an end strength of 445,000 by the National Defense Authorization Act, the lowest level since prior to World War II. This, coupled with recruitment issues, reduces the total manpower available.

In addition, members of the 5th Engineering Battalion were a large portion of the soldiers “borrowed” to man the gates, particularly on weekends. The 5th Engineering Battalion is transitioning to Fort Riley, Kan., and over 50 percent of this transition has already occurred, reducing the manpower available. Civilian employees also man the gates, but there is a high turnover rate at the position, which is entry level.

Trainees may not be used to staff the gates, and that is the primary mission of Fort Leonard Wood. Pulling drill sergeants and other support staff to man gates impedes the ability to accomplish their training mission.

The Army’s solution to ensure access to General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital (GLWACH) was to utilize the 911 system. A dispatcher would contact them and someone would open the gate within 20 minutes. Drills so far had shown they could have the gate open in 7 to 11 minutes. The public provided feedback that the response time for an ambulance to reach them is 35 minutes or more, therefore the 911 system is seldom activated and private conveyance typically transports someone to the GLWACH emergency room.

Photo by Shari Harris
Texas County Commissioner Robert Ross spoke at the meeting in support of his constituents in Northwest Texas County. Rep. Bennie Cook (behind Ross) and Grant Wilson (second from right) from U.S. Rep. Jason Smith’s office, spoke at the meeting as well. Commissioner John Casey, left, and Rep. Brad Hudson, right, also attended.

Civilian nurses at GLWACH voiced concerns about responding to work when on call within their required 30 minute window, when the alternate route around takes 45 minutes or more.

Several personal experiences were shared where a delay in accessing medical care would have likely resulted in death. Strokes, cardiac events, anaphylaxis, and injuries involving critical blood loss were among those discussed.

Real estate values were discussed by real estate agents and a representative of the Plato School Board. The agents reported that every active duty member who has purchased property from them on the south side of the fort has asked whether the South Gate remains open. They feared closing the gate would decrease property values and reduce property sales, hurting current owners and the school tax base.

Employees who report early or work into the evening spoke. One father said he wouldn’t allow his teenage daughter to work in St. Robert if it meant she had to drive home at night along Highway 17 from Buckhorn. Much of the route is isolated, with no shoulders, several hills and curves, many deer along the road, and no cell phone service for about a 10-mile stretch. A husband voiced the same concern for his wife.

Beck thanked everyone for their comments, and he and his staff took notes and listened to each speaker, remaining more than an hour beyond the scheduled end of the meeting. He voiced his respect for several comments, including the 2025 planned repairs of the Roubidoux Bridge, which will close that stretch of Highway 17 for 45 days. He said he would follow up with community leaders, and asked all to go to the Interactive Customer Evaluation (ICE) website (https://ice.disa.mil/index.cfm?fa=site&site_id=447&dep=DoD) to give suggestions or voice concerns.

At the time this article went to press, there were no further announcements, and the closing from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. is scheduled to begin on February 1.

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