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Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst celebrates 10th anniversary

By DAVID LEVINSKY | Burlington County Times | Published: October 2, 2019

JOINT BASE McGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST (Tribune News Service) — The formation of New Jersey's largest military installation was celebrated Tuesday during a rededication ceremony featuring the so-called "mastermind" behind joint basing and the leader of the fight for the base's survival.

Former Congressman Jim Saxton was the guest of honor and the featured speaker during the ceremony marking the 10-year-anniversary of the merger of Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base and Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst.

Saxton, who retired from Congress in 2008 after serving 25 years, is widely credited with leading the local campaigns to save the formerly separate military installations from forced closures in the late 1980s and 1990s, as well as coming up with the idea of merging them into one so-called "megabase" in 2005. The installation is now New Jersey's second-largest employer and is considered integral for the nation's defense and New Jersey's economy.

Speaking before an audience of joint base leaders, personnel, civilian workers, military brass and local guests, Saxton spoke little of his own role as the base's longtime defender and instead praised the men and women who serve on the installation daily, as well as the military leaders who have commanded there.

"I can think of nothing in my years in Congress that was more enjoyable, more important or rewarding than the relationship I have had with the military and civilian personnel at the joint base and the three individual bases in the preceding 25 years for that matter," Saxton said. "The people here, the leadership, soldiers, airmen, sailors, Coast Guard personnel as well as the members of the civilian support groups ... you have all been part of a wonderful experience."

He also said the base has survived and thrived because base leaders have put the well being of the men and women who work and serve on the installation and their families first and foremost.

He cited the late Gen. Thomas Kelly, who served as commander of Fort Dix from 1983 to 1986. While best known for his work as the military's spokesman during the first Persian Gulf war, Saxton said he remembers Kelly best for his leadership at the historic Army post and how he was able to communicate its importance to the residents of the surrounding communities.

Saxton recalled the time he brought four community leaders to the base to meet with him to discuss the noisy explosions heard from the installation some nights.

"He looked them in the eye and said 'We have explosions because we're teaching our service members how to deal with explosives. You wouldn't want me to stop that would you?' They looked at him and said 'No sir.'"

Another example, the congressman cited was former Fort Dix Commander James Wurman, who banned smoking on installation in 1988, long before such bans became commonplace. Saxton said Wurman, a smoker himself, was concerned about the health impacts second-hand smoke could have on the soldiers and their families..

Saxton also hailed the contributions of retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, who became the joint base's first commander when the bases merged in 2009. Saxton said Grosso "worked round the clock to ensure the transition went as smooth as possible." But like the others, her first priority was to look out for the base personnel and their families.

Saxton recalled arriving at a meeting with New Jersey Department of Education officials in Trenton to discuss creating a school choice program on the base so families there would be able to choose from the three public school districts that serve the installation and finding Grosso was already in the room discussing the issue with them.

Last, he cited former retired Army Col. Michael Warner, another former commander of Fort Dix, for his continuing dedication and work to defend and enhance the installation.

"It was very simple, just do what was best for military personnel and their families. We still follow that edict today," Saxton said. "We are 10 years old and 10 years down the road and still looking for what's next at JB-MDL. One things for sure ... our aim is and always will be to make things better for military families, our adopted friends."

U.S. Navy Capt. William Sherrod, who commands the Naval Support Activities at Lakehurst, spoke on behalf of the entire installation to thank Saxton.

"Without your efforts this certainly would not be something we'd be celebrating today and this installation would probably be in a very different form," he said.

The Lakehurst commander also reflected on the over 100 years of history at the base and its uniqueness as the only joint base with representatives from every military branch present.

"The success of this base is all about the relationships. The relationships and success of our 88 mission partners with their unique priorities and missions are all able to accomplish what they need to because of the patience, the cooperation and mutual support of each mission partner and leader and stakeholder in this organization," he said.

Following the ceremony, the leaders broke ground on the site where a special decennial time capsule commemorating the joint base's history, will be buried.

Guests were also invited to trek the 1-mile "Walk-of-the-Decade" loop around Doughboy Field featuring displays about the 10-year-history of the merged installation and to visit the Armed Forces Heritage Museum's "virtual military museum" featuring information about the installation's history and mission.

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Dutko, who serves as president of the Heritage Museum, said events like the decennial celebration provide an opportunity to educate more residents about the joint base's history and importance.

"I think there are 40,000 people who really understand it because they work here," Dutko said. "But the general public, we want to reach them. A lot of people don't really know what's going on here and we try to educate them."

©2019 Burlington County Times, Willingboro, N.J.
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