As rituals go, the Fort Carson Community Partnership Town Hall event appears to be losing its mass appeal.
At its peak, the annual forum dealing with pertinent issues involving the Army and Colorado Springs attracted nearly 1,000 people. Last Friday, at the town hall's latest rendition, the Doubletree Hotel crowd was more like 350, and at least half appeared to be either military or public officials.
Not exactly a cross-section of area residents.
With no small-group sessions to help with interaction as in past years, the politicians, educators and chamber of commerce types heard messages they've almost memorized by now. Yes, the influx of soldiers is continuing, but it's not easy to discern because of regular departures and returns tied to Middle East deployments. And yes, the increased military presence in recent years has caused a strain, as well as the added burden of being unpredictable, on social services inside and outside the military.
Once again, we heard the Fort Carson version of how much the Army sincerely appreciates Colorado Springs, and vice versa. But this still is a time of transition at the Mountain Post, and that was evident.
If anyone came to see and hear Maj. Gen. David Perkins, Fort Carson's first-year commanding general, that didn't happen. Instead, the Army's frontman was Brig. Gen. Jim Pasquarette, the 4th Infantry Division's deputy commanding general. Perkins' predecessors, Maj. Gens. Mark Graham and Robert Mixon, were a regular presence, and much involved, at these gatherings.
But it turned out fine. Pasquarette, just promoted from colonel a few months ago, is a much-decorated soldier whose credentials while in the military include a master's degree from Harvard, and he was part of the 4th ID leadership who came here from Fort Hood near Killeen, Texas.
It's obvious Pasquarette knows the right things to say, and just as obvious that he and others enjoy being stationed here more than in central Texas, where the summer humidity often is higher than the temperature. Pasquarette still has children living at home and attending local schools (Fountain-Fort Carson's District 8), so he could speak about that from first-person knowledge.
The general did offer a candid update of combat-related problems such as post-traumatic stress and brain injuries, admitting (as Graham did in the past) that the huge spike in PTSD and other after-effects "caught us flat-footed." Pasquarette's best news in that regard came via descriptions of how soldiers are being handled at the end of deployments: In the past, he said, everyone would come home and see what happened next. Now, teams start evaluating individuals and identifying possible problems before they even leave the combat zones.
Pasquarette then delivered this town hall's best takeaway moment: a realistic assessment of Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site. He admitted there had been a lack of effective communication about acquiring more land, saying if people are still concerned about expansion, "I wouldn't be ... we're not looking to expand any time soon," and that the Army is working to mend "frayed" relationships.
His paraphrased assessment: This summer, the Army will have two battalions (more than 1,000 soldiers each) using Piñon Canyon, mainly in August. It'll be busy, but for the foreseeable future, the site's 235,000 acres will suffice. The problem will come when (or if) the active fighting winds down and our military presence in the Middle East scales back considerably. Then, instead of constant deployments, the Army will have thousands more soldiers headquartered and training here.
That day, if it ever comes, would be when the Army would need more training space, Pasquarette says. Of course, Fort Carson would like to bring in a new aviation brigade with 100 helicopters, which could change priorities. Also, the Army surely still has a long-range plan (leaked a few years ago) of someday amassing up to 5 million acres, basically a swath from Trinidad to Lamar. But if the Army admits its current Piñon Canyon space is sufficient for now, and funds are limited, that's encouraging.
Beyond that, the impression of this new command is positive, that the Army isn't taking Colorado Springs for granted.
But with smaller crowds and Fort Carson's No. 2 general instead of the main guy, the town hall idea might not be the best way to determine that anymore.