BRUNSWICK – The Pentagon targeted Brunswick Naval Air Station for realignment Friday, unveiling a plan to keep the base open while sending half its military personnel and all of its planes away.

The Department of Defense proposal, now headed to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, calls for the loss of 2,317 military jobs and 61 civilian jobs.

The decision left local leaders wondering what it all means as they gathered to plan their next step.

“It’s like we’ve been given a new car but no gas,” said Ralph Dean, a retired Navy captain who has worked for two years to keep the base open.

He has been arguing that the base is too strategically valuable to close. The Pentagon got that message, he said. Meanwhile, they took away the base’s main jobs, training marine patrol squadrons for deployment and guarding U.S. waters.

If the plans for Brunswick continue, the base would not even be classified as a naval air station anymore. It would be called a “naval air facility.”

“We are very, very disappointed,” said Richard Tetrev, chairman of the NAS Brunswick Task Force.

On Friday afternoon, the task force gathered with all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation and Gov. John Baldacci to plot their next moves.

The first step will be for Dean to attend hearings before the closure commission in Washington. Meanwhile, Tetrev and others plan to ignite popular support for the base and its personnel.

Their overall aim: to force a reversal of the Pentagon decision. It could be a tough argument, though. In the past four base closure rounds – in 1988, ’91, ’93 and ’95 – 85 to 90 percent of all the targeted bases stayed on the list.

Spreading the word

News of Brunswick’s appearance on the dreaded list began trickling from Washington shortly after 9 a.m.

That’s when Capt. Robert Winneg, Brunswick Naval Air Station’s commanding officer, received his first information. His staff monitored TV reports, which at first said the base would close. At 10:31 a.m., official Pentagon documents were sent to Winneg’s office.

“I did not get any advance notice,” he said. Details were sketchy.

He was merely told that all of the squadrons based in Brunswick – four active-duty P-3 Orion squadrons, one reserve P-3 Orion unit and one reserve squadron of C-130 Hercules cargo planes – would be sent to Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida.

Also to be sent to the Florida base is a mechanics unit called AIMD, which stands for Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department.

“There will be no home-based aircraft left,” Winneg said.

Meanwhile, members of the NAS Brunswick Task Force gathered at the banquet hall of a nearby restaurant, The Atrium. Congressional officers called. Their news baffled the group, which included local government leaders and retired Navy officers.

“We were prepared for the base to be closed or the base to stay open,” said Forrest Lowe, chairman of the Brunswick Town Council. “We weren’t expecting this.”

The Brunswick base was kept open to help protect America, according to the text of the Pentagon report.

“This recommendation retains an operational airfield in the Northeast that can be used to support the homeland defense mission, as needed, and maintains strategic flexibility,” the report said.

To Dean, a retired P-3 pilot, it’s a schizophrenic recommendation. In the next sentence of the report, every active-duty unit at the base is sent away, he said.

The recommendations, which fill one page, will be the task force’s starting point toward arguing against the changes to the base.

The Pentagon suggests that it can save $238.8 million in 20 years by closing the base. Dean plans to come up with his own rebuttal figure.

Tetrev compared it to a trial.

“The prosecution has rested,” he said. “Now, it’s time for the defense.”

Defending BNAS

The Pentagon understood the need for the Brunswick base.

That’s why leaders there kept it open, Dean said. Now, the closure commission needs to understand that the local base contributes to homeland security only if there are planes there.

“It’s not just a piece of land with a tower, a runway and a couple of nice hangars,” he said. It can and should protect shipping lanes leading to Boston and New York. It can make the Northeast safer.

That can’t be done from Jacksonville, Dean said.

There will be chances to get the message out. Two members of the closure commission will visit the Brunswick base in the coming months. Supporters of the base will also have a chance to appear before the commission in Washington.

Tetrev says he hopes the commission will be open to hearing from Brunswick’s supporters. The task force is also hoping to mobilize people. There may be rallies or other events.

The group has created a Web site, www.midcoastbrac.org, with information about how to write to the closure commission. The site also provides a way to donate to the task force.

The all-volunteer group was funded by $75,000 in state money. About $30,000 remains, Tetrev said. However, that money will go fast as the fight to save jobs at the base heats up.

The state has also hired the PMA Group, a Washington lobbying firm, to help spread messages in support of the Brunswick base and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

Baldacci pledged Friday to “go anywhere and do anything I have to do” to aid the state’s bases.

“Maine will come through this and we need to let our workers and communities know that,” he said. “The delegation is mobilized. The state is mobilized. We’re not going take this lying down.”


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