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FORT LEONARD WOOD, MO. — As U.S. military forces dug in for protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army instructors at Fort Leonard Wood modified their training programs to mimic the sorts of established encampments soldiers would encounter overseas.
Now, with the U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East, recruits are experiencing a more traditional, “expeditionary-based” training program at the sprawling Army post 90 miles northeast of Springfield, Mo.
“They don’t drive in and stay in a hut” at a mock forward operating base, “they stay in a tent,” said Maj. Gen. Leslie Smith, who assumed command of Fort Leonard Wood in June and is meeting with media and officials in hopes of strengthening ties between the 72-year-old base and the surrounding area.
One of only three Army basic training facilities that trains both men and women, Fort Leonard Wood also is home to the Army’s Engineer, Military Police and Chemical training programs.
Primarily an Army facility, it also conducts joint training with contingents from each branch of the U.S. military and international “exchange students” from dozens of allied countries.
Smith said the return to a “more austere” form of field training is part of a larger shift at the post, where there is a renewed focus on the core missions that existed before the wars in the Middle East.
Soldiers at the Army Engineer School, for example, will continue researching ways to counter improvised explosive devices. But traditional missions — building things, demolishing others and bridging rivers — will be getting more attention, as well.
“It’s back to the basics across all of those functions,” said Smith, who is a former head of the Chemical Corps School at Fort Leonard Wood. “We won’t be deploying as much, so the focus is, ‘How do we keep that edge?’”
Virtual training is part of the answer — computer simulators installed at Fort Leonard Wood in recent years allow soldiers to practice driving a truck through a sandstorm or blizzard or command units in virtual combat, while mock training facilities can simulate anything from a chemical weapons lab to an internment camp.
Troops trained at the post also are being deployed to allied nations around the world to help build facilities or provide security and training.
“They’re doing these things, in support of the State Department mostly, to help those countries,” Smith said. “It’s good training for our guys and gals and it’s good for engagement.”
Smith also is working to engage some of the fort’s more immediate neighbors and to spread word of its accomplishments.
“We have one-of-a-kind capabilities for our Army and nation,” Smith said during a meeting with the Springfield, Mo., News-Leader editorial board Wednesday. “My goal is to get people to understand that both inside and outside the gate … Defense of the nation and support of the nation is part of a story we’ve got to tell.”
Like a university
The outreach effort isn’t all public relations. Smith said Fort Leonard Wood hopes to collaborate with a number of outside organizations as it seeks to improve on existing training.
“We want to ask, what do you do … and how can we collaborate?” Smith said. He planned to meet Wednesday with Missouri State University President Clif Smart.
“We have the same challenges as a university,” he said. MSU may have ideas the fort can use, or vice versa, for training, as well as “how we take care of people” with housing and other services.
Smart, who talked with the general for about 30 minutes after an event with campus ROTC cadets, said he thinks the idea has potential.
“I know he [Smith] is interested in collaborating with us to solve problems,” Smart said. “I also broached the subject of, could Missouri State be a part of their education center? Are there gaps in their program we could fill … or tailor to their needs?”
In addition to the direct benefits to be gained from such partnerships, the community connections Smith hopes to foster could give Fort Leonard Wood an advantage as defense spending tightens and the military engages in another round of consolidation.
Past Base Realignment and Closure actions have benefited Fort Leonard Wood, which gained the Chemical and Military Police schools in 1999 when Fort McClellan in Alabama was closed, as well as several additional training programs and active-duty units following the more recent round of consolidation in 2005.
Expansion has slowed more recently, and Smith said he doesn’t expect much additional construction once the post finishes about $250 million in projects currently underway or expected to be completed in the next few years.
Another round of consolidation is scheduled for 2015.
Smith wouldn’t speculate about Fort Leonard Wood’s prospects, and said he’s more interested in touting the fort’s strengths than talking about potential consequences of closure.
“More, ‘This is why Fort Leonard Wood is critical,’ ” he said, noting that, with a combined military and civilian payroll of more than $1 billion, the post is the sixth largest employer in Missouri. “If you were to pick it up and move it somewhere else, there would be a cost.”
Of course, the more connected Fort Leonard Wood becomes to neighboring communities and organizations, the higher the cost of closure becomes — a fact not lost on the general, who smiled when asked whether that was part of the motivation for current outreach efforts.
“We have a symbiotic relationship,” Smith said. “It’s good for all of us.”
Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com