Expansion: Future on the line 

click to enlarge Maj. Gen. Mark Graham says the Army will respond to - concerns. - JON KELLEY
  • Jon Kelley
  • Maj. Gen. Mark Graham says the Army will respond to concerns.

Somewhere amid the numerous servings of reality, some distinct and sobering messages came across Monday night to the 800 or so people attending the latest Fort Carson expansion town hall meeting at the Antlers Hilton.

The deal is done. It's too late to say no.

We never had that chance. Not the public, anyway.

Instead, Colorado Springs clearly has staked a larger chunk of its future on the military, like it or not.

There's no certainty about numbers or timing. The only sure thing, as anyone could grasp Monday, is that this military expansion especially if the estimates come true will stretch and strain this area to the max.

We're talking about social services, education, child care, medical help, nonprofits and more.

Over the next five years, the Army plans to add as many as 45,000 more people counting soldiers and their dependents to the Fort Carson community and, by extension, the Pikes Peak region.

Fort Carson's new commander, Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, put a happy and optimistic face on the Army's increasing presence here. The soldiers are coming by the thousands, and the Army is intent on making this expansion work. Graham also showed the audience two slick videos aimed at promoting the stereotype of dedicated soldiers who fully deserve our chest-thumping patriotism.

We didn't need that. The large group needed more time for answers, facts and straight talk.

To his credit, Graham provided some. He openly admitted the number of troops returning from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder, initially thought to be 10 to 13 percent, is more like 30 percent. That figure should send a chill across the city to agencies, mental-health professionals and overworked nonprofits who will deal with the consequences.

Many at the meeting were skeptical about some statements presented as undeniable fact. For example, we heard that 70 percent of those stationed at Fort Carson will live off the post, but also that two-thirds of that 70 percent will buy homes in the area. That's hard to believe, and even a later revision saying 45 percent of all incoming soldiers would purchase houses or townhomes seems high.

You hear that, and you wonder about other points. Lots of other points, which some were calling problems or shortcomings, and others simply challenges.

click to enlarge About 800 people heard answers to various questions - about expansion, along with a plea for continued feedback - as the planning process continues. - JON KELLEY
  • Jon Kelley
  • About 800 people heard answers to various questions about expansion, along with a plea for continued feedback as the planning process continues.

Such as how to deal with the higher-than-average influx of special-needs military children, many with profound disabilities. How to find enough speech pathologists and therapists to handle the demand without cutting other school programs. How to come up with enough teachers, doctors and nurses.

How to provide enough quality day care for 6,000-plus incoming kids from birth to age 9. How to handle the demand for water, since the expansion is coming before the city is certain how it can bring in more from the Arkansas River.

How to make sure school districts have a chance to cope, which starts with knowing how many students to expect, and when.

"Right now, Fort Carson can't tell us which soldiers are bringing families with them and which aren't, because they don't know, which makes planning very difficult," says Cheryl Walker, Fountain-Fort Carson District 8 superintendent.

Walker adds that autism among military children is rampant, and she says 100 out of 440 new students this year have been classified as special needs, 25 of them severe.

"We just started one classroom for autistic kids last year," she says. "Now we need two."

Walker also wonders how to deal with the many special-needs children coming from Fort Hood in Texas, which is far more proactive than Colorado in identifying and tackling such limitations.

"We'll get a lot more kids who come here with a program that says they need, for instance, 10 hours of speech therapy. And we just don't have the resources."

All of those issues, and more, came out in reports or discussions at the meeting. We were promised, by Graham and the Army folks as well as by different governmental officials, that every concern will be addressed. We'll hold them to that.

One other set of questions went unasked: What if the Democrats win the White House, along with controlling Congress? What if that leads to a rapid pullout from Iraq? What if it means reversing military expansion? What if all that starts to happen as soon as 2009?

That's obviously not the military view, nor that of local leaders.

To them, Fort Carson expansion is as sure as the sunrise.

As for the accompanying problems or challenges, if you prefer it's simply impossible to feel that optimistic. But at least we're talking about the issues, and not ignoring them.

We may be talking more, much more, in days to come.


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