Command change brings new style to Fort Meade Col. Morris' starch leaves others chafing


The new garrison commander of Fort Meade hadn't been in charge for 30 minutes in July when he was greeted by an Odenton woman who demanded to know his position on moving the state prison boot camp from Jessup to the military post.

Having no idea what the woman was talking about, Col. Robert G. Morris III glanced at his wife, Patti, who simply shrugged her shoulders.

His spokesman, Julius Simms, said, "Come on, I'll explain it to you later."

The boot camp issue would dog Colonel Morris for the next three months. Community groups and politicians swarmed in opposition to the state's proposal, while the governor told reporters he liked the idea and would never change his mind.

"I think I was looking at a shotgun," said Colonel Morris, who earlier this month decided to recommend that the boot camp be located on the post. "I mean, it was loaded. And it went off in my face."

Coming from New Jersey, where he was in charge of 825 soldiers as the senior Army adviser for the New Jersey National Guard, Colonel Morris found himself caught in the middle of a political battle even before he knew who the players were.

His predecessor, Col. Kent D. Menser, thrived on such political jousting. Faced with a base that was being reduced in size and troops that were leaving, Colonel Menser, now retired, brought the historic post into a new era of white-collar workers. He spoke of changing Fort Meade into a "federal office park."

Colonel Menser sold his 100-year vision, complete with slide show, at every opportunity. But the good relations he built with community residents evaporated over the boot camp issue. Neighbors who had warmly embraced Colonel Menser and his style now felt the commander kept them them out of the decision-making process.

In Colonel Morris, area residents will meet a man who differs in both approach and style from his predecessor. His booming voice demands respect and attention. He doesn't mince words. Colonel Menser described himself as a mayor; Colonel Morris is a commander.

"Being blunt, no. Being up front, yes," the colonel explains. "Being evasive, no. Being correct, yes. Being dishonest, no. Being honest, yes. Am I going to tell everybody what they want to hear? Probably not. Am I going to let people manipulate me when I know what I am doing is right or correct? Probably not."

That style has come through in public twice in the last month. Meeting with residents to discuss his decision to recommend placing the boot camp on post, Colonel Morris told state Del. Marsha G. Perry, D-Crofton, "I'm in control here."

"Menser was more out-reaching, more inclusive, in a friendly, grandfather way," Ms. Perry said. Colonel Morris' style "is more like, 'I'll tell you what is going to happen, and I'll tell you how it fits into your plans.' "

The commander sent a memo to Fort Meade employees declaring that the boot camp issue was closed and that there would be "no more public discussion" on the matter.

"That is the problem," Ms. Perry said. "There is a lot to discuss. He's much more hard-line military."

However, the delegate held out hope that the difference between past and present commanders was more one of style than substance.

"I doubt if he would be in this position if he didn't have the same vision as Colonel Menser," she said.

A fourth-generation soldier, Colonel Morris, 45, is used to command. A veteran of the ground war in the Persian Gulf who served in the 101st Airborne Division from 1981 to 1985, he commanded artillery battalions until being assigned to New Jersey in July 1992.

He and his wife have four children: Elaina, 17; Victor, 11; Patrick, 9; and Krista, 4. All attend public school in Anne Arundel County.

Being a native of Philadelphia, he says, explains the large jar of Utz pretzels he keeps in the office. His hobbies include refurbishing old cars -- he drives a vintage World War II jeep and a restored 1973 450 SLC Mercedes Benz (he can even recite the serial number). He also builds model tanks, which he uses for lectures on military strategy.

The Morris family is no stranger to Fort Meade. His grandfather was stationed on the post in 1919, and his father was there in the months leading up to World War II.

While not as publicity-minded as Colonel Menser, he has scheduled meetings this week with community leaders to discuss what is happening at the fort, and with acting county school Superintendent Carol S. Parham to see how he can expand the Meade Schools 2000 program, in which military and civilian units adopt a school and provide supplies and tutoring.

He plans to attend meetings of the Odenton Town Center Committee, which is trying to redesign the community, especially the strip on Route 175 near the main entrance to the post.

But to Colonel Morris, the Fort Meade community comes first.

"My job is to take care of the people on the installation and be a good neighbor," he said.

The colonel's focus may have something to do with the condition of Fort Meade when he took over. Aside from the boot camp issue, activities at the fort are being scrutinized by 17 investigations. Seven involve possible criminal wrongdoing. While details have yet to be made public, federal lawmakers said the probes include fraud, waste, racial discrimination and violations of federal environmental laws.

"I've put my focus on the inside of the installation because, as I told my soldiers this morning, my suspicion is that they have been overlooked in terms of their well-being," Colonel Morris said. "So, I kind of deviated from [Col. Menser's] method.

"I approach people with the attitude that they are doing a good job," Colonel Morris said, explaining that he routinely jumps in a van, drives around the post and gives a worker a ride. "I say, 'Soldier, tell me about this post. Where do you work? What's going on? What don't you like?' "

A wide range of problems has come to light -- from soldiers who don't like to pay taxi drivers to get from one end of post to another, to those who want more variety in the post clothing store, to others who want more weights in the gym.

"These are pressing issues for me," the colonel said. "It is all taking care of people."

Many of the programs championed by Colonel Menser will remain, if not expand. Colonel Morris wants to see his fort's buildings renovated and its grounds well-groomed.

Colonel Menser had convinced the federal Environmental Protection Agency to agree to build a $40 million lab on the base.

In 1995, three Defense Information schools will be consolidated at Fort Meade. Base officials said 11 other federal institutions, some of them classified, are coming.

"What we are doing now is planning for the future and bringing all that stuff on board," Colonel Morris said.

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