New York Sen. Chuck Schumer says he’s not afraid to use his political might to protect Fort Drum from cuts to the military budget. Schumer held a press conference at Watertown City Hall Wednesday as the Pentagon prepares to axe up to 100,000 Army troops.
The possibility of an Army downsizing to 1940s levels is fraying nerves in military communities nationwide. But on Monday, concern deepened. The Army circulated a sort of worst-case scenario report – and it included assessing the loss of nearly 90 percent of the troops stationed at Fort Drum.
Schumer said Wednesday he came to Watertown specifically to throw cold water on that report.
"I want to say first thing, loud and clear," Schumer said. "Any report that suggests that Fort Drum is in danger of large reductions is completely off base."
By contrast, Schumer argued the base has “a glowing future.” He said with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan nearly ended, the Pentagon is focused more on quick, tactical strikes than protracted, big tanks and boots-on-the-ground engagements.
"The 10th Mountain Division is exactly the kind of highly trained, nimble and tactical unit the Army wants to be the new standard for all our Armed Forces," Schumer explained. "Fort Drum should be at the epicenter of our country’s future military."
Fort Drum is already slated to lose 1,500 soldiers with the deactivation of the 3rd Brigade. Some 18,000 troops are currently stationed there.
A new economic impact study says the Army base generates $1.5 billion a year for the North Country economy. That includes more than 6,000 spin-off civilian jobs.
Carl McLaughlin directs the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization and says the region needs to make its case for how important the base is.
"We have a story that we have to press on to the rest of the state, and to the national folk," McLaughlin said. "It’s a great story."
Standing next to Schumer, Jefferson County legislative chairwoman Carolyn Fitzpatrick said that story includes the popularity of the region among soldiers’ families.
"Whether they’ve live on the base or off base, they have never found a community that they cared so much about," Fitzpatrick said.
"And that cares about them," Schumer added.
"And we have," Fitzpatrick said. "Our community has shown the love. It’s not Fort Drum or Watertown, or Jefferson or Lewis or St. Lawrence Counties. It’s all of us together."
There are tons of political factors at play here – whether Congress allows another round of sequestration, whether Republicans take control of the Senate, whether other parts of the country carry more favor in Washington. Up to 100,000 troop cuts will have to come from somewhere.
But Schumer flexed his political muscle in Watertown. He said he was instrumental in the confirmation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who will guide the Pentagon’s restructuring.
"The first topic I talked about with him, before he was Secretary of Defense, was Fort Drum, impressing upon him how important Fort Drum was to the United States Army, to our defense, and, frankly, to me," Schumer said.
The senator also mentioned another political ally. Jefferson County native John McHugh represented Fort Drum in Congress for years and led its expansion in the 1990s. Today, he’s the Secretary of the Army.