By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
FORT BLISS, Texas - The reflagging tomorrow of the 1st Cavalry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team represents the first big step in relocating the 1st Armored Division from Germany to its new stateside home.
The 4-1 Cavalry, which stood up here in October, 2005, will be reflagged 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division, during tomorrow's ceremony. The reflagging marks the first phase of the "Old Ironsides" division's move to this west Texas post.
Once completed in 2012, the move will bring an additional 37,000 soldiers to Fort Bliss, almost quadrupling its soldier population, Clark McChesney, director of the post's Transformation Office, told American Forces Press Service.
The move is part of the Defense Department's global reposturing strategy and the Army's modularization effort, which initially called for the 1st Armored Division headquarters, four brigade combat teams and a combat aviation brigade from Fort Hood, Texas, to move to Fort Bliss.
But as McChesney and the Fort Bliss staff were jumping through hoops in anticipation of those arrivals, they got word in late 2007 that two additional brigade combat teams were on the way. It's not yet clear if those brigades will fall under 1st Armored Division or be flagged as separate, numbered brigades.
"What's an additional 7,000 soldiers between friends?" McChesney joked as he hovered over a multicolored diagram laying out myriad efforts under way to ensure incoming soldiers have all they need to hit the ground running.
Driving around this sprawling post, it's impossible not to see signs of the $4.1 billion in construction projects that are transforming the face of Fort Bliss.
A six-year construction boom that began in October, 2006, will transform stretches of mesquite brush and sand dunes on the post's eastern side into state-of-the-art living and training facilities. "We're basically building an entire new city," McChesney said.
Ultimately, the expansion will include new headquarters and administrative spaces, aircraft hangars, arms rooms, unit storage facilities, barracks, dining facilities, fitness centers, medical and dental facilities, motor pool areas, maintenance facilities and wash racks.
Plans also call for $180 million in construction to expand range complexes that now serve air defense units so they're suitable for mounted maneuvers. Expansion plans will tap into space and capabilities at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., collectively offering 800,000 acres of on- and off-road maneuver area, McChesney said.
"I've seen the big plan for this, and when this whole project is done, it's going to be a state-of-the art facility for soldiers," said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Stephan Frennier, command sergeant major for 4-1 Cavalry, who will serve as 4-1 Armored Division's top enlisted soldier after tomorrow's ceremony.
But sitting in his office in one of the sea of modular trailers known as "Long Sword Village" in honor of the 4-1 Cavalry Long Sword Brigade, Frennier conceded the growth won't happen overnight. "It's going to be very nice, but it's going to be a while before it's finished, so we have to be patient," he said.
Meanwhile, Long Knife Village sits in the midst of an expanse of mesquite brush being turned into an Army garrison. "As you can see, we're in the middle of a construction site," Frennier said. "We're surrounded almost 360 degrees with construction right now."
Frennier remembered arriving at Fort Bliss in June 2005 to stand up the brigade and having to scrounge for everything from office space to barracks space to equipment for his soldiers. The brigade's modular village was ready to be moved into in February, 2006.
McChesney had hoped to move the incoming 4-1 Cavalry soldiers into permanent facilities, but had no place to put them on post and couldn't build new ones fast enough. "The unit was coming, and we didn't have any facilities to put them in, so this was a way to get them into some kind of structure in about half the time (required for new construction)," he said.
Instead of moving piecemeal into the first permanent 1st Armored Division facilities as they are completed, 4th Brigade will stay in the modular buildings until the summer of 2009. "We wanted to avoid putting these guys through a series of duffle bag drags, so we're keeping them in place until the second set of buildings is ready," McChesney said.
The first of the new, permanent complexes, which consists of about 40 major buildings, including office space, barracks, storage facilities and maintenance space, is expected to be completed by Aug. 15.
The incoming 1st Armored Division's 1st Brigade will begin occupying those buildings as soon as they are completed.
"We have about 30 or so (1st Brigade soldiers) on the ground now, and an advanced party will get here soon to help their fellow soldiers arrive and stand up the brigade, get their equipment and sign for their buildings," McChesney said.
The 1st Brigade is scheduled to officially activate at Fort Bliss on Aug. 16, a day after its last building is delivered.
"We've got a phased plan, and we've been working very diligently so we're able to turn facilities over to the unit as quickly as they're ready," McChesney said. "We're running about 30 days ahead of schedule, pretty much across the board, and soldiers will start moving in incrementally, from west to east."
When 4th Brigade moves into the second set of permanent facilities in mid-2009, another incoming brigade, yet to be named, will move into the modular facilities it vacates while its own permanent buildings are built, McChesney said.
The 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, is slated to arrive in the summer of 2010.
McChesney compared planning to boost the post's soldier population from 10,000 to about 37,000 to putting together a puzzle in which all the pieces are the same size and color. "We're trying to figure out how to put the puzzle together here at Fort Bliss," he said.
Because the post is smack in the middle of El Paso, one of Texas' biggest cities, that puzzle depends heavily on cooperation with state and local officials. That includes not just the city and county government, but also five local school systems expected to absorb about more than 12,000 school-age children from Fort Bliss, business developers, homebuilders, realtor associations and transportation officials, among others.
"The community continues to be extremely supportive," McChesney said. "They see Fort Bliss as a major economic engine. The additional 7,000 soldiers just adds to the economic impact."
More than a year into the growth plan, McChesney said he's cautiously optimistic it will stay on track to handle the troop surge the post already is beginning to face.
"So far, it's not a Swiss watch, but it's keeping pretty good time," he said.