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'Let's move now'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT MONMOUTH, N.J. -- Kathy Sukiennik's family has been taking photos in front of the fireplace at the officers' club here since 1952, the year her father, Louis Welch, an Army captain, and her mother, Kay, a civilian file clerk, married in a Catholic Mass at Chapel No. 2 and held their reception in the club's room with the fireplace.

After the wedding, her family moved several times - to Iran, Germany and Arizona - but always returned to assignments at the fort, and to the fireplace inside the aristocratic, English Tudor mansion, once a 1920s private country club complete with polo fields and an airplane landing strip.

Sukiennik's next move will be different, likely marking an end to family photos in front of the fireplace.

As part of the national realignment of military bases, the Army will move thousands of jobs, including her husband Bob's civilian electrical engineering post, to Maryland and close the more than 1,000-acre base.

The fort employs more than 7,500 federal workers and on-post contractors, many of whom will be assigned to Harford County's Aberdeen Proving Ground by 2011.

"The whole process is like slowly ripping off a Band-Aid," Sukiennik said. "It's painful, so my attitude is, let's get it over with. Let's move now."

The Sukienniks have many questions: about relocation benefits, schools, real estate - and what her husband's job will be like at Aberdeen.

So far, no one has told the Sukienniks when they'll have to move, what expenses the Army will cover or the availability of offices at Aberdeen.

Many hope to receive answers at a relocation expo at Fort Monmouth that begins today and will include presentations from Maryland, Harford County and Cecil County officials.

Organizers say they expect more than 4,000 people to attend.

Schools, commutes

The Sukienniks are concerned about many things: the rising costs of homes in areas around Aberdeen that offer good schools, the possibility of her husband having a long commute to work if they move into an area with good schools, and the possibility that the value of their $650,000 Shrewsbury, N.J., home will plummet as many of their neighbors make the same journey south.

But given Sukiennik's strong ties to the fort - she worked there for 20 years and met her husband on the job - she is surprisingly eager to move to Maryland.

She views the state as offering a lower cost of living and lower property taxes, which might allow her to quit her part-time job or put more money away for the college education of her two children.

Sukeinnik's roots at the fort go deep - her two brothers also live in the area and they share the responsibility of caring for their mother, who is 80.

Her mother once volunteered for the Red Cross, and Sukiennik's sister, Joan, worked as a candy-striper at the base's Patterson Army Hospital while she was in high school.

When her father would hear the bugle in the late afternoon, he would pull over the family's 1963 Pontiac station wagon. Everyone would get out, face the music and place their hands over their hearts as part of the end-of-business-day military ritual.

Soldiers are rare

Because Fort Monmouth's high-tech mission relies heavily on existing commercial technology and contractors, it is rare to see a soldier in uniform on the base - 467 military personnel are stationed there.

Security requirements after the Sept. 11 attacks have cut off the fort from the public, making it seem as if New York City, which is about an hour north, is slowly usurping the base's identity.

The turnover of students at Sukiennik's daughter's school was 2.3 percent during the 2004-2005 school year, 10 percent below the state average - a testament to the receding presence of soldiers on the base and the high quality of life in the area.

On statewide assessment tests that year, 94.8 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient or better in language arts.

For every area resident with a connection to the fort, there is another who takes the North Jersey Coast Line train into Manhattan. Given the engineering skills of Fort Monmouth's workers, many of them believe that employers in the New York region will welcome them should they choose to stay.

Gary Martin, 44, manages thousands of employees at Fort Monmouth, including Kathy's husband. But Martin's offices, like many at Monmouth, are not plush. A mousetrap lies next to his office cabinet.

A short man with glasses and a chocolate-brown goatee, Martin is a former Army lieutenant from northern Maine. He grew up in a small town within sight of Canada.

Although he has been a civilian engineer for 22 years, the Army has never really left his blood.

"I'll live wherever the Army sends me," he says, leaning back in his chair at the small, round conference table in his office.

He knows, however, that not all of his employees are as flexible. He groups his 4,000-member staff, contractors included, into three categories.

Many of the older guys - the staff is mostly male - are already eligible to retire or nearing eligibility.

The ones who are eligible will retire and stay behind, Martin says. The ones who are close to retirement will commute - sharing an apartment in Maryland with a colleague in a similar situation - until they are ready to leave the work force.

Memberes of the next, slightly younger group haven't made up their minds. They're mostly in their mid-40s and joined the federal government around the time that Congress built a 401(k) for civil servants, making their retirement nest egg more mobile and less pension-dependent.

For this group, the move is a family decision based largely on their children's needs.

Ready but unable

Some members of the final group - the younger guys - would prefer to move now, before their children enter kindergarten, before they meet someone they want to marry who doesn't want to move, before they save enough money to settle down and buy a house.

The problem, Martin says, is that there are no offices or labs at Aberdeen ready for them.

As for Martin, he travels down to Maryland every few months with friends who, like him, are already shopping for homes. He said that listing prices on some Harford County homes have jumped tens of thousands of dollars since the Pentagon announced the job transfers.

He says he's having a difficult time finding property to build a home on that's not owned by a developer or scheduled for development.

He's going to try to move his family sometime after his 15-year-old son graduates from high school but before his 13-year-old daughter enters it.

Martin, however, says that he might have to live as a bachelor in an apartment until the timing is right for his family.

"We're all concerned about the school systems," Martin said. "We hear they're overcrowded and that the private schools all have long waiting lists."

Every time a home goes on the market in the Fallston or Bel Air areas of Harford County, Sukiennik gets an e-mail in her AOL account. After doing countless hours of online research, she has decided that the schools in those specific areas are good.

She hasn't found anything yet because, she says, "I don't want a cookie-cutter development where every house is beige."

She is trying, however, to move before her 3 1/2 -year-old son enters kindergarten and her 7-year-old daughter becomes too attached to her school.

That date will likely come before Aberdeen is ready for Bob Sukiennik's job and the family gets its official change order, called a PCS for permanent change of station.

Her hope is that they'll move without the order, even if that means the Army won't pay for the move, because they'll have sold their old house and bought a new one before the rush - before home prices in Harford escalate and ones around Monmouth depreciate. The savings would then cover the moving costs.

Other families, however, are certainly less warm to the idea.

Last year, Sukiennik wore a T-shirt advertising the Aberdeen IronBirds - the city's minor league baseball team - to her husband's softball game. His colleagues heckled her for it.

"Growing up in an Army family, when you're told to move, you move," Sukiennik said. "I guess for that reason, I'm not so upset."

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Fort Monmouth, N.J.

Employment:5,085 federal civilian, 467 military, about 2,500 contractors

Size:1,126 acres

Relocation:The base was ordered closed by 2011 and its functions distributed to other facilities. Operations related to electronic communication research and development are to move to the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

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