Master Sgt. Christopher Botzum cringes every time he hears someone refer to the “shuttered” Willow Grove air base.
Botzum, a 30-year airplane mechanic-turned public affairs representative for the 111th Fighter Wing, said he can’t go across the street in his military uniform without being asked if the base is “still open.”
Of course, 862 acres of the 1,100-acre property which fronts Route 611 closed its doors for good on Sept. 15. But, the remaining 238-acre piece - now dubbed the Horsham Air Guard Station - remains.
With construction ongoing to build a large entrance gate project; relocate a memorial in front of the 111thFighter Wing for the Pennsylvania Air National Guard headquarters; and, by Oct. 4, complete an expansion of the National Collaborative Development Center – an intelligence training facility for FBI, ATF and CIA – military officials said the portion of the base which fronts County Line Road in Horsham is definitely open for business.
“We’re still here,” Botzum said during a recent tour of the property. “We’re still a viable force and still able to contribute.”
Remaining forces and ongoing missions
Following last year’s closure of Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove and the relocation of all Navy and Marine Corps personnel, three military components are left: the 111th Fighter Wing for the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, the 56th Stryker Brigade for the Pennsylvania Army Guard and the Army Reserve Center.
In all, the 111th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Howard “Chip” Eissler estimated that between 2,500 to 3,000 military personnel are assigned to the various units operating out of the Horsham property. Of those, Eissler said all live off-site, about 20 percent work full-time, while the majority are “traditional” reservists and guard personnel who drill periodically, mostly on weekends.
For the 1,000 soldiers assigned to the newly built Army Reserve Training Center, the base “restructuring” actually worked out beneficially, according to Glenn Umberger Jr., supervisory staff administrator for the 338th Medical Brigade. Under the Base Realignment and Closure Commission’s recommendations, several reserve centers have been consolidated into one larger space, which was put to use in September, in conjunction with Willow Grove air base’s closure, Umberger said.
Instead of the 250 reservists operating from the brick building on the other side of Route 611 in Horsham, the new structure within the security gate accommodates 15 reserve units and four times as many soldiers, including many from previous reserve centers in Chester, Germantown, Worcester and Pennsauken, N.J., he said.
“For us, as Army reservists, by becoming centralized geographically, we have been afforded more resources,” Umberger said, adding that a refurbished gym offers the 60-80 full-time soldiers a place to work out and distance learning centers enable video training in instances when an instructor can’t physically be present. “We can support each other better.”
The property where the vacated Army reserve building is situated is in the process of being transferred to Hatboro-Horsham School District. While Umberger was unsure of the old versus new building sizes, he said the new facility is much bigger.
In general of reservists and guard members Eissler said, “it’s a big boon to the economy to have them here.”
Like the Army Reserves, the 56th Stryker Brigade for the Pennsylvania Army National Guard grew while the military community within Horsham’s community - Willow Grove air base - was downsizing. Sergeant First Class Michael Messing said that prior to October 2010, the brigade’s headquarters had previously been on Southampton Road in Philadelphia.
“Our element grew,” Messing said. “We needed a newer and bigger space.”
That transition means the Army deploys in smaller elements, he said and is “more mobile.”
“We’re not firing weapons,” Messing said. “We don’t have artillery with us.”
Instead, the brigade mans a tactical operations center, which Messing likens to the “hub of all information.”
Answering the call of duty
The Stryker Brigade returned from a deployment to Iraq in September 2009, Messing said. Before that, the brigade spent 45 days in New Orleans in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
“Our mission was to provide security to tractor trailers bringing in supplies – food and water and ice,” Messing said, adding that his time helping with the Katrina aftermath meant more than his time in Iraq. “Just the look on the people’s faces that says ‘you came all the way from Pennsylvania.’ ”
When local soldiers are deployed, representatives from the Horsham Air Guard Station’s Family Readiness Group assist families left behind to make sure “they have someone to turn to,” according to Anna Richar, airman and Family Readiness Group program manager.
“We have a phone tree. We call the families once a month to make sure they’re ok. It’s just a routine phone call,” Richar said. “We want to make sure our members are ok and not worried about their families.”
Richar said Family Readiness provides support for a multitude of issues, everything from help with children, to questions about medical benefits, and even finding a plumber. Services are offered for all branches of the military, she said.
Currently, the Air National guard has more than 60 members deployed. Prior to a deployment, Richar said it’s customary for service men and women and their family members to take part in pre-deployment briefings, to help ease the anxiety of having a loved one gone.
Prior to her assuming her current role, Richar said she relied heavily on the Family Readiness Group when her husband was deployed.
“My family was not that close and I felt they didn’t even understand what I was going through … the feelings, the ups and downs,” Richar said. “The only way I was able to help myself and others was because we’re all in the same circumstances.”
Along with shedding a “surplus” 862 acres of land that formerly housed Willow Grove air base, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission stripped the 111th Fighter Wing of its flying mission.
Even before the Horsham Land Reuse Authority in July 2011 overwhelmingly rejected applications calling for an airport on much of Willow Grove air base, the flying mission had been permanently grounded.
“It’s a shame that we lost that,” said Eissler, who had served as group commander when A-10s were flown locally.
According to a video posted on the 111th Fighter Wing’s Web site, June 6, 2010 marked the end of a flying era for the unit.
Without a flying mission, Botzum said that military being deployed - and in particular their massive 6,400-pound Humvees, Strykers and the like – would travel to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey and be flown overseas on a cargo plane.
Eissler said the HLRA’s review and consideration and ultimate rejection of an airport had nothing to do with the shift in focus.
“Our mission changed due to other things,” he said. “It is a significant change … Most of us people have transitioned.”
Botzum, who has worked at what is now the Horsham Air Guard Station since 1988, had been maintaining planes for 30 years.
“I would’ve had the option of taking a retirement,” said Botzum, who also flew privately and built planes. “It was great that I had a job that was also a hobby.”
Eissler said he is awaiting word of when a new “flight” mission of sorts will get underway.
“They take these airplanes, they take them overseas,” Eissler said. “We actually sit here on the base … We won’t see or touch the airplanes. We will execute a mission in Afghanistan while sitting remotely.”
As for the old hangars, Botzum said one has been converted for mud storage, in preparation for natural disasters, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The hangars used for larger airplanes now house various large pieces of equipment and vehicles.
The plan – at least for the time being – is to keep the hangars.
“Down the road things always evolve,” Botzum said.
Evolution seems to have been the theme since about the time when the Base Realignment and Closure Commission's decision to close Willow Grove air base was handed down.
“Since 2005, things seem to change at an unbelievable pace,” Eissler said. “It seems to be budget-driven.”
The day-to-day personnel on the base was cut from about 1,100 to 800, he said. Less people require fewer buildings, he said, adding that demolition of unused buildings will continue.
An $8 million facility renovation for the Air Operations Group has been put on hold indefinitely, Eissler said.
As the federal government weighs in on a mixed-use redevelopment plan for the bulk of what was the 1,100-acre base property, Eissler said he does not think the homes proposed to surround the Horsham Air Guard Station will have any impact on the military or its various missions.
“I don’t see how it’s going to affect us,” Eissler said, adding that Air National Guard units that operate flying missions do so in oftentimes little space. “Most of the guard units out there are co-located on an airport.”
Since flying is no longer part of the equation and because military staff typically work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week, Eissler said base neighbors will likely not have the same complaints as when “loud” planes were frequently flying overhead.
Along with the loss of planes, the remaining base is no longer representative of every military branch. Prior to NASJRB Willow Grove’s closure, Botzum said the military units were “very collaborative.”
“One base could basically feed its own war,” Botzum said. “Being separate was, you sort of didn’t do it. When we were all together, I felt safe. But, you know what happened with that.”
Even though Botzum said the remaining base’s new name – Horsham Air Guard Station - has yet to be “officially” changed from the previous, Willow Grove Air Reserve Station, and much of the site appears to be a work in progress, the 238 acres are far from "shuttered."