You know what I like best about driving around the "new" Fort Meade? The signs.
They're composed of actual words -- "Public Affairs," "Museum," "Housing Office."
Don't laugh. Signs that make sense to ordinary civilians are a rare and endangered species at Army installations. I used to hate covering Aberdeen Proving Ground because I needed a full-time translator to help me wade through the alphabet soup the military seems to love so much.
I still remember the first time I drove onto the Aberdeen post and asked for directions. "Go past the CRDEC to the DEH and turn right at BASOPS," some soldier told me. He might as well have been speaking Mandarin Chinese.
At Col. Kent D. Menser's retirement ceremonies last week, people talked about the many changes he's made at Fort Meade. But nobody mentioned the signs. They should have; they're the most succinct example of how, in two short years, he has changed this from an Army post to a "town" where civilians belong just as much as military folk.
Most military people forget that, for a civilian, going onto an Army base can feel a little like entering a foreign country. They forget that everyone else doesn't speak their language. And the longer they're in uniform, the harder it is for them to communicate with outsiders.
Colonel Menser was an exception. He knew how to communicate with outsiders -- boy, did he ever. He became a regular fixture at school affairs, community association meetings, business luncheons and local government events. He talked and talked and talked about his "Meade 2000" plan, that ambitious vision of the base as a college campus/government park/military complex.
He sold it like a master salesman (or, some more suspicious observers have noted, a master politician), communicating with people in their language rather than his.
The signs were merely a reflection of his philosophy that the Army can't function as an isolated entity anymore. "We want people to understand where they are and where they want to go," Colonel Menser said about a year ago. "Fort Meade is for all citizens, not just the ones who understand the signs."
Just a week before his retirement, he elaborated on this idea that the mission and identity of military bases have changed. "There's no more Fort Apache," he said, "with the post out in the middle of nowhere, with the good guys on the inside and bad guys on the outside. Things have changed outside the walls of Fort Apache. There's no more need for walls. There's a need to work very much closer with the community."
Colonel Menser did exactly that. Fort Meade spokesman Don McClow said he can see the difference between him and prior commanders "in the number of newspaper clips [he's produced]. He was just so much more out in the community."
The community rewarded him with overwhelming popularity. It's true, his reputation has suffered a little in recent weeks. Controversy over a proposal to bring a state-run correctional boot camp to Fort Meade has done some damage, and some question his motives and methods. By and large, however, people have liked Colonel Menser because he acted like one of them.
The schools gave him a special little retirement reception. The business community bemoaned the Army's refusal to let him stay an extra year, as he had requested. "He appreciated the value of taking down the barriers between the military and civilian communities," said Ed Griemsmann, president of the West County Chamber of Commerce.
For Colonel Menser, this removal of barriers was both a means and an end. The end is his baby, Meade 2000, where civilians and military mix in perfect harmony. But he knew that end would never be reached if he holed up on base and failed to win over the community.
His detractors speculate that Colonel Menser's relentless forays into the community these past two years might have been designed to lay the groundwork for a future in local politics. All he says is that he wants a career in "public service." What is certain is that the colonel desperately wants Meade 2000 to live on as his legacy. Yet he knew full well that its chances were shaky unless he could sell the concept to a public that would clamor for it after other commanders had taken his place.
"I wanted people to have an expectation of what Fort Meade's future will be," he said. "Now they have bought into the concept," and it will be difficult for future commanders to change it.
Of course, the concept itself wasn't that hard to sell. With the exception of the boot camp (an idea which Colonel Menser insists he has not embraced, despite the fact that his staffers have been working on it for some time), everything he has suggested is virtually guaranteed to find public favor. Tearing down dilapidated World War II buildings, constructing an attractive new government office park, designing a new transportation network, changing those unintelligible signs -- how difficult are these to "sell"?
The real challenge for a garrison commander in the early 1990s lies in recognizing that Army posts can no longer function as they did in the days before downsizing and the end of the Cold War, then taking plans for the new Fort Meade to the people in language they could understand.
Colonel Menser mastered this challenge -- especially the last half of it.
Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in AnnArundel County.