Local Military News

MCAS Beaufort, Naval Hospital taking steps to remain relevant

Leaders of northern Beaufort County's military bases are taking steps necessary to remain relevant and protect against possible future closures or cutbacks, a panel told a Sun City group Friday.

In the face of any concern about future Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC), the last of which occurred in 2005, representatives of the S.C. Military Base Task Force and Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce's Military Enhancement Committee said they were doing what they could to be prepared.

"We try to be alert and proactive in dealing with these things," said Bill Bethea, chairman of the S.C. Military Base Task Force. "This area is unique and provides insulation, we hope, from future closures."

Bethea provided an update on military-friendly laws that passed this year, including allowing in-state tuition with no waiting period to service members and dependents who leave the service in the state. Another law the task force hopes passes next year is one exempting military retirement pay from state income taxes.

A Clemson economic impact study concluded the exemption would have a positive economic effect on local and state governments within 10 years.

Col. Peter Buck, commanding officer of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, and U.S. Navy Capt. Anne Lear, who commands Naval Hospital Beaufort, updated the crowd in Sun City's Magnolia Hall about activity on the bases.

At MCAS Beaufort:

  • A new hangar is being constructed for the F-35B and two more will be built in coming years. A landing area is being developed to simulate landing vertically on an aircraft carrier.
  • Plans are in the works to expand Townsend Bombing Range in Georgia, which MCAS owns and uses for training runs. The area will expand from 5,000 acres to 33,000 to allow for training at tactical speeds and altitudes, Buck said. The target for that expansion is 2019.
  • All six of the base's F/A-18 squadrons are deployed. The aircraft will fly from the base until the late 2020s, when they are replaced by the F-35B. The aviation plan will eventually include two F-35B training squadrons and two or three operational squadrons. "The F-35 is the next 50 years in Marine aviation," Buck said. "And with that, Beaufort remains relevant."
  • British pilots and maintenance personnel will begin F-35B training in Beaufort in December until 2019, when they will return to begin their own program, Buck said.
  • At Naval Hospital Beaufort

  • Some services have been extended to include veterans as well as retirees, including orthopedic surgery, podiatry, physical therapy and optometry.
  • Joined with VA to provide a physical therapy clinic starting next year that will serve active duty, retirees and veterans. In the past, the Naval Hospital only treated active duty. The hospital currently has only one fulltime physical therapist and techs, Lear said.
  • The changes at Naval Hospital Beaufort come a year after it closed its emergency room and ended obstetrics and gynecology services. The hospital maintains an urgent care clinic during evening hours and holidays and emergency patients are taken by ambulance to Beaufort Memorial Hospital, Lear said.

    Lear said expanding care was a necessary step to match the growing number of retirees in the Lowcountry.

    "We are not closing," Lear told the Sun City group. "As you can see, we are expanding services."

    The Naval Hospital's steps are good buffers in advance of any future discussion about trimming bases, said Jim Wegmann, chairman of the Military Enhancement Committee and a S.C. Military Base Task Force representative. Excess infrastructure has come up as a concern in the U.S. Army and Air Force, but not other branches, he said.

    Any worry about the next round of BRAC can probably wait until after the election year, he added.

    "No one is going to come out and say we need to start closing bases, because communities get crazy when that happens," Wegmann said. "I don't think we'll hear a lot about it, but we'll have to keep an eye on it."

    Follow reporter Stephen Fastenau at twitter.com/IPBG_Stephen.

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