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The following correction to this story was posted December 7, 2005: "A Dec. 6 story about Rear Adm. Noel Preston’s impromptu town hall meetings at La Maddalena, Sardinia, to discuss rumors that the U.S. Navy base there would be closed by Christmas was ambiguous. The base will not be closing before Christmas of this year, but the Navy does not have a timeline for when it will close."

The news around Thanksgiving of the impending closure of a U.S. Navy base in Sardinia, Italy, took many by surprise — including the Navy two-star admiral who oversees all U.S. naval facilities in Europe.

So on Friday, Rear Adm. Noel Preston held two impromptu town hall meetings at La Maddalena to quell fears of servicemembers, families, U.S. civilians and local national employees about rumors of a pre-Christmas closure.

He answered a majority of questions by saying, “We just don’t know yet.”

“The biggest question was about the time line,” Preston said in a phone interview late Friday after the meetings. “They wanted to know if this happens, when is it going to happen? … I had to tell them we just don’t know the time line.”

On Nov. 23, Pentagon officials announced the planned closing of La Maddalena, which has assets that support nuclear submarines traveling from U.S. bases to the Italian island of Sardinia. U.S. and Italian government leaders agreed on a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces and assets from La Maddalena but gave no time line.

The base is home to about 2,500 U.S. servicemembers and families assigned to the Naval Support Activity, Submarine Squadron 22, and the submarine tender USS Emory S. Land, the only U.S. ship based there. Roughly 150 local nationals hold jobs at the base.

Preston was caught off guard by both the announcement and the timing of its release, which came after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld met with Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino.

“It caught me by surprise,” Preston said.

Closing La Maddalena is part of the Navy’s ongoing transformation of forces in Europe. Navy and Defense leaders determined the base, set up in 1972 to aid in the chasing of Soviet submarines during the Cold War, no longer is needed, Preston said. The decision to close was not because of swelling public protests, he said.

As with the recent closing of naval facilities in England and the downsizing of the naval base in Gaeta, Italy, the Navy will not be “coldheartedly efficient” when it comes to moving its forces, Preston said. For example, families might not be moved immediately if they have a child in school, and leaders will work hard at finding replacement jobs for local nationals, he said.

Preston’s visit satisfied at least two sailors who attended the town hall meetings that the Navy will look out for them, they said in phone interviews Monday.

“We learned they are still working on a time line … and we are to conduct business as normal,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Jim Boothe, the base’s sole telephone technician. “I’m OK with that.”

Master Chief Petty Officer Jonathan Rowcliffe, the senior enlisted adviser of base security, said Preston’s candor lent credibility at the meeting, and though many left with few concrete answers, sailors weren’t riled.


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