Little fish in big pond, battalion says farewell to fort


When the 519th Military Police Battalion moves out of Fort Meade forever in just a few weeks, chances are, most people won't notice.

The Dunkin' Donuts across Route 175 still will sell a lot of doughnuts, and the Hardee's next door a lot of burgers. Bill's Cleaners won't run out of shirts to clean, and Lackwell's Garage won't run out of cars to repair.

After all, the battalion -- which has deployed MPs to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm and Panama for Operation Just Cause -- now numbers about 150 soldiers on a base with more than 11,000 military personnel and some 28,000 civilian employees.

"We're a very small piece of the pie," said Don McClow, deputy public affairs officer. "There will be minimum impact economically and on the schools and housing when we leave."

But even though the Army's decision to move one of the last remaining combat units out of Fort Meade won't mean much to the world at large, for a handful of soldiers and their families, the decision will change their whole world.

So yesterday, under a cloudless sky on the sprawling base, the Army thanked the men and women of the 519th with an all-day, farewell barbecue.

As the troops ate hot dogs and hamburgers, drank soda and non-alcoholic beer while taking a break from horseshoes, softball and volleyball, a few of the families talked about what the Army's decision to split the battalion, sending soldiers to Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama, would mean to them.

James and Barbara Erickson were none too thrilled with the news. Just two months ago, Barbara moved down with the couple's two small sons from New York, where she was staying with her parents.

"When she came here, we didn't think we would move so soon," said Erickson, an enlisted man headed for Fort McClellan, Ala.

"We're kind of in limbo now," said Barbara Erickson, who's done nothing but pack and unpack the past few months. "It's hard to move so much, but it's the military life."

Sgt. Stephen Connor and his wife, Mary-Jane, have lived at Fort FTC Meade for eight years, during two four-year tours with a four-year stint in Germany sandwiched in between. They, too, are destined for Fort McClellan.

Connor said he'd miss Maryland crabs more than anything else.

"Chesapeake Bay Seafood House -- that's where we always went," he said.

But his wife, who gave up working full time two years ago after they had their second child, thinks moving to Alabama is going to be a bigger adjustment than learning how to live without crab cakes.

"It's very multicultural here," said Mary-Jane, who has lived abroad much of her life as the daughter of a U.S. Air Force officer. "There's a lot to do. I'll miss going to Baltimore and Washington, to the museums and aquariums and all."

Asked what she'd do at Fort McClellan, she responded, "Probably be bored for two years until we move."

Some soldiers said they look forward to the move, among them Sgt. Michael Smith, who moved to Fort Meade two years ago.

"I don't like to stay in one place too long," he said.

But his wife, Mina, who moved with Smith to Fort Meade from her native Korea, said she's not happy about moving so soon.

"It took a while to like it here," said Mina, who admitted she'd rather settle down in one place for a while.

After members of the 519th leave, the 85th Medical Battalion will be the only combat unit left at the base. The 85th also is slated for relocation in the near future.

Moving these two remaining combat units elsewhere is part of a nationwide base realignment and closure program directed by the Department of Defense. Under the plan, Fort Meade lost its firing ranges in October 1991 when the army turned over 7,600 acres to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

Without the firing ranges, which were used for training exercises, it made sense to move the combat units elsewhere, said McClow.

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