Sailors from HM-14 in Norfolk, Va., load up to be airlifted out on a Sikorsky Sea Dragon helicopter during a training exercise at Fort Pickett on Thursday. (Lisa Billings / The Associated Press)
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Blackstone, Va., town manager Larry Palmore poses in front of a Blackstone landmark, Sullivan's Restaurant and Tavern, on Thursday. While Base Realignment and Closure Commission closings have been a death knell for bases nationwide and the businesses that rely on them, Fort Pickett has not only survived, but prospered since the base was closed in 1997. (Lisa Billings / The Associated Press)
BLACKSTONE, Va. — Growing up, Larry Palmore paid no mind to the windows of his family farmhouse rattling or dishes in the cabinet shaking from the explosions emanating from nearby Fort Pickett.
"They've got to train somewhere," Palmore said of the 42,000-acre post about an hour southwest of Richmond. "We're a very patriotic town. Since 1941, everyone grew up with it: listening to the booms and the windows rattling and paying no attention to it."
As manager of this town of 3,600, Palmore welcomes each year about 80,000 troops who train in Blackstone — and the explosions that may come with it.
While Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission closings have been a death knell for some bases nationwide and the businesses that rely on them, Fort Pickett has not only survived since it was recommended for closure in 1995, but has prospered.
"We were scared to death because our lifeline is Fort Pickett," Palmore said of the decision to close the base. "But I tell people often, if I'd known how it was gonna turn out, I wish that BRAC was 25 years ago. It's just been very, very positive."
About 800 people work full time at Fort Pickett, a bulk of which live in the Southside Virginia town. But the constant rotation of trainees is Blackstone's true economic engine.
Once a camp for German prisoners during World War II, the base now is operated by the Virginia National Guard and still serves as a training facility for military and law enforcement.
Over the last five years, the military has pumped about $42 million into the base for additional training facilities, including a sniper course funded by the Navy. Officials expect $4 million in training additions over the next year.
U.S. and Canadian forces, and agencies like the U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI, are attracted to Fort Pickett because of its rural nature and its rivers, rolling hills and wetlands that provide different terrain for live weapons exercises, officials said.
"People come here to really shoot," said Lt. Col. David Weisnicht, director of training at the base, which serves as the third largest ammunition supply point on the East Coast, behind Fort Stewart in Georgia and Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Weisnicht said about 6 million rounds of ammunition were fired at Fort Pickett last year. The base boasts a new multipurpose range where trainees can shoot anything from a 9 mm pistol to 120 mm tank cannon and be scored by computer.
The base's most used facility is an urban training setup, complete with a city hall, school and a training sewer system connecting all the buildings. The Virginia State Police conduct high-speed driving exercises on nearby Blackstone Army Airfield and are looking at building a permanent course on the base.
Army, Navy and Canadian forces completed a two-week training exercise at Fort Pickett in late February, including aircraft refueling, medical evacuations and petroleum firefighting training. Along with Canadian leadership, the exercise included troops from Virginia, New Hampshire, Maine, Montana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.
"It just provides everything. It gives us all the fuel training we can do, plus all the tactical level training within 45 minutes," said Maj. Dennis Levesque, operations officer for the 240th Quartermaster Battalion based at Fort Lee in Petersburg.
While money is being spent for training facilities, the base still houses up to 5,000 visiting troops in its original barracks that have been upgraded with heat and new bathrooms and another facility built in 1980s. Officials said more modern barracks are needed, but funding just takes time.
"What we have here now is old but it's very livable," Weisnicht said. "If you have a nice modern barracks but you don't have a place to go train, it kind of reverses the order."
The base faces another challenge. In addition to being part of the town of Blackstone and the counties of Nottoway, Dinwiddie, Brunswick and Lunenburg, it also serves as a business area known as Pickett Park. On one side of the road stands the post's large gym, on the other is the old officer's club that was converted into a day care and community center.
"The relationship causes for some challenges," said Col. Robert Sparks, the base's garrison commander. For example, if security increases on the gates, that constricts traffic to businesses.
But despite those challenges, there's a steady increase in activity at Fort Pickett, and officials said they expect that to continue.
"We've survived now for 10 years," Weisnicht said, adding that he still gets calls from people who thought the base closed in the '90s.
"We kind of closed one day right out front on Oct. 1, 1997, and reopened two minutes later as the Army Guard Maneuver Training Center."