ANNISTON, Alabama (MCT) — Jason Parks knows his way around a Stryker combat vehicle.
The Weaver resident has helped refurbish Strykers since they first came to the Anniston Army Depot six years ago. Parks stayed with the vehicle in 2012 when a defense contractor, General Dynamics Land Systems, began a pilot program at the depot to upgrade a handful of them to better protect soldiers.
While others at the depot lost their jobs due to budget cuts and the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Parks was confident he'd still have work with the Stryker.
He doesn't expect that to change anytime soon.
"I believe the Stryker is the future of the depot," Parks said.
The depot celebrated the restart of its Stryker double-V hull upgrade program with General Dynamics, which has an Anniston site, during a special ceremony Thursday. General Dynamics officials say the $163 million contract for the Strykers, which took effect in May, is the beginning of steady, annual work on the vehicles that could help keep jobs at the depot for several years.
Peter Keating, spokesman for General Dynamics, said the current Stryker contract will last through this time next year. It includes converting 93 flat-bottom Stryker infantry combat vehicles to double-V hull models to better protect them from improvised explosive devices.
At $1.6 million per vehicle, the cost to renovate a Stryker is estimated to be 60 percent of the cost to build one new.
"We expect that by the end of this contract that we will then pick up the next contract," Keating said. "The Army's goal is to keep continuing production until we finish all nine brigades of Strykers."
The Army has more than 4,000 Strykers, Keating said. With plans to upgrade and refurbish between 100 and 120 Strykers each year, that could mean years of work for the depot and General Dynamics employees should the Army continue the program.
Keating said General Dynamics has already hired 90 workers to help with the current Stryker contract and expects to hire another 50 in the near future. General Dynamics has 432 employees in Anniston.
"This program is a true indication of the power that private and public partnerships brings — creating jobs in a local community at a time when well-paying jobs are at a premium," said Gary Whited, president of General Dynamics Land Systems, who attended the event.
Meanwhile, the depot has 270 employees who also work on the Strykers and another 40 workers who provide support for the upgrade program. The depot has about 2,800 total employees and is the single largest employer in Calhoun County. Still, it has weathered hundreds of layoffs in recent years due to budget cuts.
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, who attended the event, said some of those cuts could be reversed in the near future due to conflicts around the world. Rogers, chairman of the House’s Strategic Forces subcommittee and a senior member of the Homeland Security Committee, said the escalation in fighting between Russia and Ukraine, along with increasing terrorist attacks in Iraq, could cause Congress to rethink its defense budget-slashing of recent years.
"Hopefully when we go back to Washington next month, we'll see a new attitude in defense spending," Rogers said. "Defense spending has been on the decline ... you just can't justify it anymore ... it's a very dangerous world and there are a lot of people out there who want to kill us."
Rogers said the depot and the Stryker program are both vital components of national defense.
"This program saves lives," Rogers said.
Col. Brent Bolander, commander of the depot, said the program shows again that the depot plays a major role in nation defense.
"We're producing these Strykers in a partnership that provides the best product to save lives," Bolander said. "We look forward to a continued strong partnership."
Parks said he's been glad to work on the Stryker upgrade program since it started.
"I believe it's a good thing for the soldiers," Parks said.