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For some at Aberdeen Proving Ground, New Jersey is still home

With their base relocated, hundreds are commuting daily or on weekends

By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

11:48 AM EDT, August 19, 2012

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Patricia O'Connor lives in Aberdeen. Or, by a certain way of thinking, New Jersey.

Every Friday, she drives from her cozy mobile home in Harford County to her childhood home near the seaside in Point Pleasant Beach, where she lived until her job with the Army came to Maryland. Every Monday, she makes the trip back.

She's one of hundreds who haven't completely relocated — or haven't relocated at all — since the Pentagon shut down Fort Monmouth in New Jersey and moved thousands of jobs 150 miles southwest to Aberdeen Proving Ground.

"It's a mixed bag of whatever fits your schedule and what you can live with," said O'Connor, chief information officer for the Communications-Electronics Command, the largest of the agencies that came from Fort Monmouth.

Some in the New Jersey crowd stay here during the week and go home on weekends, like O'Connor. Others go back and forth every workday by van, bus or car. Still others cut down on commuting by working at home.

More than 300 of the Communications-Electronics Command employees at Aberdeen have New Jersey addresses on file with the Army. It is unclear whether the number includes those living part-time in both states.

Robert DiMichele, a spokesman for the Communications-Electronics Command, said the Pentagon's periodic base relocation efforts more typically involve distances that require civilian workers to choose between moving or quitting.

"This is a fairly unique circumstance because of the ability — on the fringe, I must admit — to commute," DiMichele said.

The same round of base relocations, approved in 2005 and completed last September, offered another example. Organizations with headquarters in Northern Virginia moved to Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County — near enough that many workers expected to commute, at least for a while.

The Fort Monmouth area, however, is about four times as far away. Several dozen Aberdeen workers ride a chartered bus from New Jersey to the base. Trenton-based Triple D Travel charges $50 for a round trip and $450 for the entire month. Owner David Tenney said the 56-seat bus was running full until recently, when vacations sliced ridership into the 40s.

At first, though, there was just the driver and a single passenger. Tenney laughs at the memory. He's glad the numbers rose.

"It has turned out to be a good thing for us," he said. "You get to know everybody. ... It's kind of like a big family."

Philip Chan, a scientist at the Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen, suggested that Tenney give the daily trip a try after finding few mass-transit options. He thinks the bus beats driving, in terms of cost and stress. During the year he rode it to and from his home near Princeton, he read or caught up on sleep.

But commuting ate up large pieces of his life. Each morning, he arose at 5 a.m. to catch the bus for the two-hour trip south. Every evening, he got back at 7 p.m. It seemed as though he hardly saw his wife and children, ages 10 and 13.

"It took a toll on my health and my family," Chan said.

He says the daily long-distance commuters generally are close to retirement and figure they can manage for a few years or they're still deciding whether to move or quit.

Chan moved. His family bought a house in Ellicott City in July, which cut his commute to about 50 minutes each way.

"It's a lot better," he said. "I've been around for so long in [the] New York-New Jersey area, I'm really attached to it — emotionally attached. I didn't want to move. But ... my wife insisted."

Renee Ullman, a management analyst at the Communications-Electronics Command, has been taking a van pool to work for the past 16 months. The four-hour round trip isn't exactly fun, but she figured it would take her almost as long if she accepted a job in Manhattan.

And relocate? No thanks. She didn't want to move away from relatives, didn't want to uproot her husband's business in New Jersey, didn't want to leave a region she loves.

"Some people maybe moved, but they miss their stores or they miss their family or they miss the ocean — that's their sacrifice," Ullman said. "The people who commute cut down on their free time and they're tired, so that was their choice."

Another way that workers coped was coming here alone while their families remained behind, at least for a while.

"There's been quite a few that have been geographic bachelors," Gary P. Martin, deputy to the Communications-Electronics Command's commanding general, said in 2010. He was among them, living in Aberdeen for six months by himself in 2008 while his children finished the school year.

O'Connor is single with no children, which simplified the prospect of staying in Aberdeen during the week and driving to New Jersey on weekends. She's been living the dual-home life for three years now; she has 61/2 more to go before she expects to retire.

She says she has no regrets. Her three-bedroom mobile home is affordable, "cute" and big enough for visitors, and she didn't have to give up the house her parents built two blocks from the ocean. She's figured out the best route between the two, with country-western music as her soundtrack.

"I just sing all the way up, sing all the way back, because I know I'm going home to a good place and I'm coming here to a good place," O'Connor said. "I have a good job and a lot of Americans don't. I have no right to complain that I live in two nice places."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

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