Gaeta’s U.S. base halfway through its consolidation

By SANDRA JONTZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 3, 2005

GAETA, Italy — It’s called the Navy’s best kept secret, and now, fewer sailors will get a chance to indulge.

By next fall, Naval Support Activity Gaeta, Italy, will shrink from a recent peak of 2,000 sailors and families to 600, and revert to its original status, which dates to 1967, as a detachment of Naval Support Activity Naples.

“It’s a little sad, but necessary,” the base commander, Cmdr. Nannette Roberts, said of the changes and the base’s 11-year history of being an independent command. The Navy is about midway through the population reduction.

The reshuffling of support services means moving all Navy satellite offices and facilities in the town of Gaeta to the headquarters building on Monte Orlando, a hilltop facility that offers a spectacular view of the ancient town below, including the 6th Fleet flagship, USS Mount Whitney, when it’s in port.

Consolidation includes moving the school, day care and the entertainment facilities, such as the theater and concessions, from the school building to renovated accommodations at the top of the hill, Roberts said. And Gaeta will lose its only bowling alley in the consolidation.

Currently, 67 pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade, down from 200 last year, attend the Department of Defense Dependents Schools facility in an Italian schoolhouse in the heart of the city of 30,000 residents.

Next fall, she anticipates the number to drop to 15 to 20 pupils, and the school will accept children only through sixth grade. It will be housed in the renovated third floor of the headquarters building.

Seventh- and eighth-grade pupils will join their high school counterparts, who already are bused from Gaeta to the U.S. Navy base at Gricignano near Naples, about 1½ hour’s drive.

The only facility that will remain outside of Monte Orlando is the Olde Mill Inn recreational facilities, run by Morale Welfare and Recreation. That includes ball fields, a volleyball court, a pavilion, playgrounds and a horseshoe pitching box.

The changes are part of Navy Europe’s overall transformation, which included consolidated staffs from London and Gaeta to Naval Support Activity Naples.

Though the 6th Fleet headquarters and most of the fleet’s staff moved from Gaeta to the Naples base at Capodichino, Navy leadership decided to retain the flagship in Gaeta’s port.

“After careful consideration of a variety of different criteria, it was determined that Gaeta would remain the most appropriate location to homeport the 6th Fleet flagship,” Lt. Chris Servello, a fleet spokesman, said Friday.

The Mount Whitney, which took over from the USS La Salle in February, operates with 50 fewer crewmembers than its predecessor. Of the roughly 300-member crew, half are civilian mariners.

The estimated cost savings after consolidation is $10 million a year, and the estimated closing costs run just over $623,000, officials said. The cost is about $500,000 to relocate the school to Monte Orlando, which includes renovating the office space for classrooms, converting a parking lot to a new playground and buying new equipment, and renovating current medical offices to accommodate kindergarten and first grade classrooms on the ground level.

The medical clinic already has been reduced from three physicians to one, and the base recently lost its only dentist. Patrons needing dental care must travel to the hospital at Gricignano.

Gaeta’s shrinking American population also is being felt outside the base gates. Ugo Cimino said his restaurant has taken a hit with a reduced number of American customers, but does not think the reduction in force will strike a devastating blow.

And for decades, Alfredo Bazzanti said he has enjoyed conversing with Americans, both in practicing his English or as they dabbled in Italian, as they stopped into his coffee shop for a jolt of java. “Yes, their absence is certainly felt already, and [the drawdown] will hurt restaurants, bars and taxi drivers,” Bazzanti said.

The headquarters building of Naval Support Activity Gaeta, Italy, on Monte Orlando offers a spectacular view of the ancient town below, and the 6th Fleet flagship, USS Mount Whitney.

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