For more than three hours last Friday, Maj. Gen. Mark Graham addressed every question that came his way at the Independent's Fort Carson Town Hall.
Talking to several audiences, large and small, at Pikes Peak Community College's south campus, the Army Mountain Post's commanding general never flinched, even at queries that surely stabbed him in the heart. Some attendees pushed him for information about the increasing problem of soldiers committing suicide, not realizing that Graham's own son had taken his life in 2003, just eight months before the general's other adult son was killed serving in Iraq.
But Graham dealt with every issue head-on, knowing his responses might not jibe with how everyone felt. He talked about post-traumatic stress disorder, and how the Army is taking more steps to identify victims as early as possible. He emphasized his personal mission, to make certain no soldier feels threatened by reporting an emotional or psychological problem.
He also freely admitted the Army can't be specific about how many troops being assigned to Fort Carson will bring spouses and children. And when the controversial subject of Pion Canyon Maneuver Site came up, Graham restated the Army's position: More soldiers, technology and weapons will mean needing more training space, he said, and if the Pion Canyon expansion doesn't happen, that means "deploying" more units from Carson to other Army installations, separating them from their families. He added that with more soldiers here, and units returning from the Middle East, "we'll have more of them back in training."
Graham did acknowledge the Army would rather not pursue eminent domain to seize ranch land from unwilling sellers. But that won't appease Pion opponents who remain convinced the Army's long-range plan with full support of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn is to create a much-larger training facility in southeast Colorado.
One other point at the town hall induced a more immediate case of heartburn. Now that the military population here finally will grow by thousands this summer, how are Fort Carson and Colorado Springs dealing with it?
We've heard the company line: The city and the Army are cooperating on many levels. All potential problems have been anticipated and will be handled. Everything will be just fine, because everyone's on the same page.
At this town hall, however, that wasn't so clear. The elected leaders of Colorado Springs were conspicuous by their absence. Last year, when the town hall was at the Antlers Hilton, City Council was well-represented. This time, with no apparent conflict, everyone stayed away. (Two county commissioners did attend.)
And when asked about the city dealing with this influx, Graham's answer hinted he might not comprehend the scope of Colorado Springs' deepening budget troubles and service cuts.
"Any town that grows has to be worried about public safety," he said. "And when a city grows, you have to add services to take care of it."
That's not Colorado Springs' plan. Today, the city is cutting everywhere, including public safety. School districts appear capable of absorbing the growth, but for the 70-plus percent of Carson soldiers living off-base in the community, other government services almost certainly will be insufficient. And Graham was clear that "those people will be city residents," meaning they will need services beyond what Fort Carson provides.
It makes you wonder if anyone is saying to the Army: Hey, wait a minute. Do you realize Colorado Springs probably can't handle this extra burden right now? Shouldn't the military have more certainty that the city government can provide necessary services and help for these soldiers and their families?
Also, is it certain that Barack Obama's administration will have sufficient resources to continue with the "Grow the Army" plans that would bring several thousand more soldiers here in 2011? Or would it be smarter for all concerned to hit the pause button and see what happens in the next six months?
Those would be good questions for the Army, and Colorado Springs, to ponder now. But first, we have to make sure they're on the same page.
After this town hall, you can't say that for certain.