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Fayetteville, state leaders lobby against potential loss of Fort Bragg's 440th Airlift Wing

A C-130 Hercules aircraft lays dormant on a wet afternoon at Pope Field, N.C., Feb 5, 2011.

Air Force Lt. Col. Ryan Consie chose North Carolina. He and his wife moved to Southern Pines in March 2008, after switching from the active-duty Air Force to the Reserves. He was drawn by the beauty they saw when stationed at then-Pope Air Force Base between 2002 and 2005.

In Southern Pines, the couple are raising two young girls and are active in their community and a church.

But under an Air Force budget proposal released Tuesday, Consie may soon have to choose again, this time between his family's new home and his military career.

An Air Reserve technician with the 440th Airlift Wing, he's one of roughly 1,300 members of the unit facing uncertainty after officials announced that an Air Force proposal would shutter the unit, the senior authority at Pope Field.

The Air Force plan would retire the entire C-130H fleet. The planes make up the entirety of the 440th Airlift Wing's inventory, and officials said they would not be replaced.

The proposal has created uncertainty within the 440th, although many remain hopeful that military officials or Congress may be able to reverse the plan.

Most of the airmen of the 440th Airlift Wing learned of the plan late Tuesday or early Wednesday, as media reports spread via word of mouth and social media.

The wing commander, Brig. Gen. Jim Scanlan, addressed many airmen Wednesday afternoon and said he would meet with the entire group this weekend.

But not even Scanlan can tell what will happen next.

Because the proposal hasn't been approved, Scanlan said the 440th must prepare for deactivation, while hoping for the best.

If the proposal is approved, Scanlan said efforts would be made to move airmen to new units. But, he said, few airmen would qualify for financial assistance, meaning they would be forced to pay for their own moves.

Scanlan described his airmen as subdued and professional as news of the possible deactivation spread.

Other airmen said they were in shock. Rumors of the unit's demise had been around for months, they said, but no one really believed the unit would be deactivated, not after moving to Fort Bragg only seven years earlier.

Especially not because of the Fort Bragg mission - the presence of Army special operations and airborne forces that makes the post an integral part of national security and the global response force.

Lt. Col. John Gorse, acting commander of the 440th Operations Group, said he was one of the first of the unit's airmen to make the move from Milwaukee when the unit was moved to Fort Bragg in 2007.

But the rest of the Gorse family didn't make the move, not at first.

For the past seven years, Gorse said he has lived apart from his wife of 25 years as the couple's three children finished high school. Their youngest child graduates in June and has been accepted at East Carolina University.

The family shares his love for the area and planned to settle in at their home in Vass, Gorse said.

But now, the family is uncertain. Will Gorse have a job if the 440th deactivates?

Gorse said he could move to a new unit, but said he doesn't want to.

"I've got a little tar on my badger foot," he said. "I want to move on to the second part of my life."

Gorse overseas 856 people, including airmen and civilians.

He said many of them are worried.

"People are scared," he said. "They don't like losing their jobs. They don't think they have options."

Consie, chief of standardization and evaluation with the 440th Operations Group, also doesn't want to leave the life his family has built in North Carolina.

"We just loved every bit of North Carolina, from the east to the west," he said. "The reason I left active duty is we wanted to settle down here."

Like many in the unit, Consie is hoping Congress will step in to support the 440th.

A day after a budget proposal was revealed, local leaders had already begun lobbying on behalf of the unit.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan reiterated her disappointment on the proposal during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with military leaders.

"The 440th provides critical support to the 82nd Airborne Division and other major units at Fort Bragg," Hagan told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. ". Without them, there would be no Air Force planes stationed at Pope Airfield. I strongly disagree with this decision, which will adversely affect the readiness of troops at Fort Bragg."

In addition to the C-130H, other aircraft that would be retired as part of the fleet modernization are the A-10 Warthog and U-2 spy plane.

Hagan's remarks came during a hearing in which other lawmakers also lobbied on behalf of those aircraft.

Past attempts to save aircraft, including the A-10, have been successful, but Dempsey indicated it would be an uphill battle, given budget constraints.

"We had some slack in our budget over the last 10 years," Dempsey said. "There's no more slack in it."

Meanwhile, members of the U.S. House from North Carolina vowed their support for keeping the 440th in place.

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, who represents Fort Bragg, said she was deeply concerned by what the proposal means for Fayetteville and the men and women of Fort Bragg. She said she would use her power to protect the post from proposed losses.

"Not only do these cuts exceed what the law requires, they present unnecessary burdens on Fort Bragg and Pope Airfield troops, their families and our national security," Ellmers said. "While there is a need to re-evaluate our military spending as our foreign missions continue to evolve, the final defense budget will remain a function of the appropriations process here in Congress. As more details continue to unfold, I will be meeting with military leaders and my colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee to ensure that any harm to Fort Bragg and those whose jobs are impacted by these cuts are avoided."

Andrew High, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. David Price, said the congressman was not briefed on the plan in advance of the budget, but said he was concerned.

"While he is not on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Price is a senior member of the Appropriations Committee and serves on the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee," High said. "The House and Senate will write their own budget and appropriations bills over the coming months. Rep. Price will be working with his North Carolina colleagues and watching this issue very closely as the Department of Defense appropriations bill is drafted in the House."

"While Rep. Price supports many of the president's proposals to strengthen the economic recovery and expand opportunity, the committee has the responsibility to assess proposals like that involving the 440th Airlift Wing and to make an independent judgment."

Officials said the loss of the 440th would create a void of more than a thousand jobs and said the unit is credited with having a $77.8 million impact on the local economy.

It also would create tough decisions for families who live and work in the area.

Many of the unit's airmen are married to Fort Bragg soldiers, or work as pilots, teachers, police or firefighters, Scanlan said.

brooksd@fayobserver.com

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