Air Guard Base Dodges a Bullet: The 106th Rescue Wing will stay at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach

Originally published May 19, 2005

After lobbying for almost a year to keep the 106th Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach from closing, politicians from across party lines celebrated the news Friday that the base was not on the Department of Defense's list of those recommended for closure.
With the announcement, the base at Gabreski Airport dodged a major bullet, but officials say the battle is not over.

"This is far and away the biggest hurdle," Representative Tim Bishop said Tuesday. The Department of Defense recommendations now go to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which can add or delete bases from the list if seven of nine commissioners agree. "We have to remain vigilant and continue to make our argument for the importance of the 106th remaining," the congressman said.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld recommended closing 33 of the country's 318 major bases and realigning 29 others. Among those on his list was the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Conn., the oldest sub base in the country.

Last summer, politicians seemed certain the 106th Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach would be among those targeted for closure, but by Friday, when the department released its recommendations, those expectations had changed.

The turning point, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said, came in December when a dozen county, state, and federal officials traveled to Washington to lobby the Pentagon on behalf of the 106th Rescue Wing. The state hired a lobbyist and officials spent the entire day in meetings Mr. Bishop had arranged with Pentagon decision makers.

That gave New York officials the opportunity to "tell the 106th story," Mr. Thiele said Tuesday. "It was after we had the chance to tell that story . . . that we detected a real change in what was coming back from Washington about the 106th."

"We did, collectively, a very good job of making the case for the base," Mr. Bishop said.

"It was a grassroots community effort," Mr. Thiele said. "All the elected officials acted in a bipartisan manner for the common good, but the true credit goes to the 106th Air National Guard. It's the mission they perform and the way they perform it that really made this an easy job."

Although New York has more Air National Guard bases than any other state, the 106th Rescue Wing of the Air National Guard holds the distinction of being one of only three rescue units in the search and rescue missions for the state and federal government, assisting in emergencies at sea. The ability to refuel its helicopters in the air allows the 106th to perform long-range, over-water missions that would not otherwise be possible. In times of war, the 106th is charged with combat search and rescue behind enemy lines.

"As the geopolitical situation changes, I think the role for the 106th is increasingly more important," County Legislator Jay Schneiderman said Tuesday. "To have a facility that could help support relief efforts after a terrorist incident [in New York City], God forbid it happened again," is a major asset, he said.

In recent months, Southampton Town, Suffolk County, and the state have made significant gestures to show their support for the base, which has 1,275 employees and is said to bring about $100 million a year to the East End economy.

Beyond their lobbying efforts, the county decreased the Air National Guard's yearly lease payments for Gabreski Airport from $36,000 to $1 earlier this month, and the state agreed to give the base low-cost power to reduce its expenses.

Now, said State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, "we must continue to do things to ensure that Washington understands that the state and county are making financial investments at Gabreski and will continue to do so" to show that local governments are willing to "compliment the federal effort to keep the base open."

In the end, the Department of Defense list was one not based on politics but on the military value of the bases, Mr. Bishop said. "I think the Pentagon recommendations are recommendations that are data driven," he said. In this case, it seemed Republicans had no more sway than Democrats over the Pentagon's decisions.

In working together to support the 106th, politicians from both sides of the aisle did their best to put aside their own differences. "In many ways it was government at its best. It's what our constituents not only want but deserve," Mr. Bishop said. "They want to see us working together to solve real problems."