FORT BLISS, Texas, May 2, 2008 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates got a firsthand look yesterday at the massive growth under way here to prepare for the arrival of 1st Armored Division in one of the Army Corps of Engineers’ largest-ever construction projects. Army Maj. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the post commander, gave Gates a tour of the $4.1 billion expansion program that will bring an additional 30,000 soldiers to Fort Bliss by 2012.

The lion’s share of the incoming troops will be “Old Ironsides Division” soldiers moving from Germany as part of the Defense Department’s global reposturing strategy and the Army’s modularization effort.

Gates told military family leaders and community supporters last night that he considers the building boom nothing short of “awesome.”

“Today, this post –– which encompasses an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, and most of which is in New Mexico — is transforming itself to serve a nation and a military facing the strategic challenges of this century,” Gates told the group.

He called the Fort Bliss expansion part of a wider transformation effort across the military to ensure the Army, and the military as a whole, can protect the security, prosperity and freedom of Americans for the next generation.

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.

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, Clark McChesney, director of the post’s transformation office, told American Forces Press Service.

Gates toured one of the first facilities to be completed for the incoming 1st Armored Division’s 1st Brigade yesterday. The first of the unit’s soldiers already are at Fort Bliss, with the rest to arrive in time for the brigade’s official activation Aug. 16.

The secretary noted that $207 million of the expansion funds will go toward new construction at three training range complexes in New Mexico. The plan will tap into space and capabilities at neighboring White Sands Missile Range, N.M., collectively offering 800,000 acres of on- and off-road maneuver area, McChesney said.

“Future expansion means that the ties between the region’s installations — Fort Bliss, Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range — will also continue to grow,” Gates said. “This region will continue to be known by the twin hallmarks of partnership and cooperation.”

A brigade combat team to be based at White Sands will share Fort Bliss’s “robust new training facilities,” he noted.

Another big part of the expansion is dedicated to housing, child-care facilities, shopping areas and other quality-of-life facilities for the incoming soldiers and an expected 40,000 family members, he said.

Gates told senior noncommissioned officers attending the Army Sergeants Major Academy earlier yesterday that he decided to temporarily delay moving some 1st Armored Division troops to Fort Bliss partly because their housing facilities weren’t yet ready for them. “It would have been unacceptable for soldiers and their families to live and work under those conditions,” he said.

Because the post is smack in the middle of El Paso, one of Texas’ biggest cities, success of the expansion depends heavily on cooperation with state and local officials, McChesney said. 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.

Gates said he’s impressed by the local community’s support and the way its citizens have embraced the incoming soldiers and their families.

“The mayors of El Paso, Las Cruces and Alamogordo and their respective chambers of commerce have been partnering with the Army to try to prepare for this growth,” he said.

He noted that the post’s welcome center is permanently staffed by a team from the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce that helps arriving soldiers and their families find housing and arrange for their children’s schooling and child care.

“As the population of Fort Bliss continues to grow, the residents of West Texas and New Mexico have stepped up to welcome the newcomers,” Gates said. “And I know you will continue to do so as the post population increases by an astounding 300 percent by 2012.”

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