As the largest Army post east of the Mississippi River, Fort Stewart was almost an obvious target as the Army looked to trim 80,000 soldiers from its ranks. Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, on Tuesday named it among 10 U.S. bases that will each lose a combat brigade by 2017.
The Army announced the overall scale the cutbacks more than a year ago and a report earlier this year looked at a worst-case scenario for Fort Stewart that was far more ominous, with up to 8,000 soldiers being lost.
“We don’t want to lose any soldiers, but if we do it won’t be as bad as we thought,” said Mayor Jim Thomas of Hinesville, the city that sits outside Fort Stewart’s main gate.
Still, the news hit at a time when communities surrounding the Georgia base are already bracing for economic pain.
Next month, more than 3,100 civilian workers at Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah will be forced to take an unpaid furlough day every week until the federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30. The furloughs are because of the automatic budget cuts that resulted when the president and Congress failed to compromise on a deficit reduction plan. The payroll loss at the two Georgia posts could reach $10 million.
It’s hard to say how much damage a loss of 1,400 soldiers would have on the local economies around Fort Stewart, said Leah Poole, CEO of the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce. But the losses are compounded with each soldier with a spouse and children who also move away.
“It can affect retail and a lot of different things, but I don’t think we’ll really know until it happens how it affects spending habits,” Poole said. “If the spouses are working here, that has an impact. For each soldier we lose, are we losing four people in our community or only losing one?”
Georgia’s other two Army posts, Fort Benning in Columbus and Fort Gordon in Augusta, were spared from any cutbacks.
Fort Benning, home to the Army’s infantry and armor schools, is actually expected to add 76 soldiers to its ranks of more than 13,000 under the Pentagon’s restructuring plan, officials said.
The Army’s plan would shrink the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart from three ground fighting brigades to two. Typically that would mean cutting about 3,750 soldiers. But the Army says it will offset those losses by adding a battalion of 600 to 800 troops to each surviving brigade.
Figures from the Army show Fort Stewart’s population would ultimately drop from 21,100 soldiers to about 19,700.
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah said in a statement that the reduction is “certainly a disappointment,” but he noted other bases will lose a higher proportion of their troops.
The Army’s figures show the reductions would still leave Fort Stewart with about 4,500 more soldiers than it had in 2001.
Still, officials in southeast Georgia remain bitter about the Army’s decision in 2009 to break its promise two years earlier to move an additional combat brigade to Fort Stewart. In Hinesville, Thomas estimates taxpayers and private businesses spent $450 million on new construction and improvements to prepare for an influx of troops that never arrived.
The mayor said the Army in some respects still owes payback to communities whose economies are tied to Fort Stewart.