May 30, 2013 Updated: May 30, 2013 at 10:10 pm
Looming Pentagon cuts that would cut the Army's ranks by 80,000 could mean 8,000 fewer soldiers at Fort Carson in the future, the post's commander said Thursday.
Or, it could grow by about 3,000 soldiers, Maj. Gen. Paul LeCamera said.
A group of military officers, politicians and government agency leaders gathered Thursday in Colorado Springs to discuss Fort Carson's decade-long growth boom and its uncertain future.
The post has doubled its ranks since 2003, adding more than 13,000 soldiers. That growth required the Army to work closely with local governments and planners. The post has some growth on the horizon, but the future is less bright, with a decade of Pentagon budget cuts planned, including cutting the Army's rolls by 80,000 soldiers by 2020.
"We're going to have shift our formations and those decisions have not been made," LeCamera told an audience of about 150 at the town hall meeting.
With the post's 26,000 soldiers, 33,000 family members pumping an estimated $2.2 billion into the Pikes Peak region economy, any change makes waves. The range of possibilities remains wide.
"We could gain up to 3,000 soldiers and lose up to 8,000," LeCamera said.
The Defense Department plans to cut $1 trillion in spending from its books over the next 10 years. This year, Fort Carson is feeling the pinch.
"We are operating in a very constrained budget environment," LeCamera said.
Still, soldiers and helicopters for the post's new aviation brigade are arriving amid a multiyear $750 million construction plan.
The Pikes Peak region is used to planning for Fort Carson growth. Starting in 2004, when the Pentagon added a 3,800-soldier brigade, wave after wave of soldiers have arrived as the Army poured more than $2.5 billion in construction into the post.
Thursday's meeting signaled a shift in growth planning. The Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, funded by a federal grant, worked for seven years to help communities around Fort Carson deal with growth.
Now, the council has declared its growth plans complete.
A decade ago, the Pikes Peak region was bracing to lose troops under a Pentagon downsizing plan.
"We were all sitting on pins and needles during the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure Process) preparing for the worst," said Dennis Hisey, an El Paso County commissioner who heads the board of directors for the council.
Instead, the base-closing board picked Fort Carson as the home of the 4th Infantry Division and other units.
Hisey said the area came together to house the new soldiers, coughing up cash for programs including the expansion of the Highway 16 interchange, which leads from Fort Carson to Fountain.
Hisey said the cooperation between communities, where interests often conflict, and the Army to handle the growth was unprecedented.
Politicians have cooperated in recent months to keep that growth going. Local officials and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed off on a letter to the Pentagon asking the Army to add 3,000 soldiers to the post.
"I think we're positioned very well," said retired Lt. Gen. Ed Andserson, who heads the Colorado Springs-based National Homeland Defense Foundation.
Terrance McWilliams, director of military and veterans affairs for the El Pomar Foundation, said Amendment 64, which voters approved in November to legalize the recreational use of marijuana could hurt Colorado when it comes to retaining troops. Military leaders fear easy access to the drug could lead to more troops in trouble, because marijuana remains illegal under military and federal law.
LeCamera has told officials in Colorado Springs that recreational pot sales raise serious concerns for the Army.
"I told the mayor (Steve Bach), it goes against good order and discipline," LeCamera said.
The Pentagon is mulling whether Fort Carson's growth boom will turn into a bust, but there's no timeline on a decision, though some expect one within weeks.
"That's really sitting with the secretary of the Army," LeCamera said.
Hisey said the Pikes Peak region's demonstrated ability to handle Army growth should serve it well when Army leaders make the call. But fear remains.
"We can absolutely handle 3,000 more soldiers easily," Hisey said. "To lose 8,000 soldiers would hurt outside the gate."