The day before U.S. and British forces began air strikes in Afghanistan, members of the Alabama State Defense Force gathered at a military base to begin training — not for war, but to replace those who were.
They trained at Fort McClellan.
Thus began one of Calhoun County’s earliest links to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and America’s involvement in its “Forever War,” which President Biden says he’ll end by removing the final 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year.
That link also highlighted the beguiling paradox that still surrounds Anniston’s Army post, whose origin traces to the National Guardsmen who used the Bains Gap hills for artillery practice before World War I.
The Pentagon closed Fort McClellan in 1999, moving most of its remaining active-duty missions to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and handing off thousands of acres and vacant buildings to local authorities. Left intact, though, was the post’s Alabama Army National Guard site, which immediately adopted a significant role in preparing soldiers for the Afghanistan War.
Today, in the twilight of a war nearly two decades long, that paradox remains. What is McClellan? A shuttered post, a mixed-use development, a military training site? Or all three?
“People say when the post closed that the Army left town,” said retired Col. Chuck Keith, who served in a variety of Army National Guard roles at Fort McClellan, including garrison commander. “Well, we were already there, and it just got larger.”
Though fought largely in the shadow of the second Iraq War, the war in Afghanistan owns a significant human toll: 2,218 U.S. deaths, including 1,833 combat deaths, and 20,093 wounded between its opening on Oct. 7, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2014, which the Department of Defense considers the end of the war’s main phase. Another 94 deaths, including 64 in combat, have occurred since 2015. More than 100,000 civilians have been killed or wounded in the war in the last decade, according to a 2020 United Nations report.
It’s unclear how many U.S. soldiers wounded or killed in Afghanistan trained at Fort McClellan, though at their height in 2011, overall U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan hovered around 100,000. But Keith offers two key factors in considering the Fort McClellan chapter in the Afghanistan War story.
The National Guard footprint at Fort McClellan ballooned in size after the 9/11 attacks, growing from what he described as a “small training center” to a dramatically expanded site that includes Pelham Range. He also estimates that during the largest portion of the war, between 65,000 and 75,000 soldiers from several states cycled through Anniston each year, training in areas such as live-fire drills, convoy operations and logistics.
“After 9/11 when the mission started ramping up, the Pentagon said the National Guard, we are going to depend on you,” Keith said. “It is to the point, and it has been for a long time, where the Army cannot go anywhere without the National Guard and (Army) Reserve components. All of these units in the military are joined at the hip, so to speak. It’s not just once a month anymore.”
Rep. Rogers’ Opposition to War Withdrawal
Biden’s decision comes a decade after U.S. special forces killed Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in 2011, and amid the long-simmering political argument over a basic question: stay or leave?
For four years, former President Trump touted a desire to end American involvement in the war. In Washington, members of his own party pushed back, either for humanitarian reasons or hawkish beliefs.
In announcing his decision, Biden said that “the war in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking,” and he made a distinction between that war and the fighting in Iraq. “We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, is among the Republicans opposing Biden’s decision. In a joint statement with U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rogers and Inhofe said “the United States entered Afghanistan as a result of 9/11, and it is irresponsible to leave when conditions on the ground would lead to a civil war in Afghanistan and allow the country to become a safe haven for terrorists once again.”
Nevertheless, Fort McClellan’s aforementioned paradox isn’t limited to military readiness, though the brutal facts about the Pentagon’s closing of Fort McClellan’s main post remain intact.
The closure enveloped the region in concerns about population losses, economic fallout and redevelopment frustrations. Anniston has lost roughly 3,000 residents since 2000, though surrounding municipalities and Calhoun County have either gained residents or remained largely stagnant.
Likewise, Anniston’s retail areas near Fort McClellan — especially Lenlock — still bear the scars of the active-duty departure.
Nathan Hill, the Calhoun County Economic Development Council’s military liaison, doesn’t discount that. But the National Guard’s expansion remains one of the area’s unsung victories, he said, especially when added to the continued survival of Anniston Army Depot in Bynum.
A recent economic-impact study conducted by the University of Alabama in Huntsville found that the Alabama National Guard and Reserves at Fort McClellan contributed to a direct job impact of 1,456 positions in and around Calhoun County.
“If you look at what was able to be enclaved for the Guard and also for the Center for Domestic Preparedness, and the fact that Honda (Manufacturing of Alabama) came on about that same time that McClellan was locking the gates for active-duty forces, we had really minimal impact by the loss of McClellan in our area,” Hill said.
“We did have an impact, but it could have been a heck of a lot worse if we had not had the Guard and the CDP.”
Wartime Expansion at Fort McClellan
In essence, the military operations that remained in Anniston enjoyed a perfect storm: a national ramping-up because of twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a smorgasbord of training areas to absorb.
Before 1999, the Alabama Army National Guard site sat in a northern sliver of the post. After closure, and over time, the site evolved into something closer in scope to Fort McClellan’s heyday.
“There’s a very huge enclave that the Guard took over,” Keith said.
Today, Fort McClellan is home to the Alabama Army National Guard Training Center, the Alabama Military Academy’s officer candidate training school, the 167th Theater Sustainment Command and a collection of smaller detachments Keith estimates could reach double digits.
The Alabama National Guard’s war-time growth at Fort McClellan included absorptions, like Pelham Range, and new constructions. In 2009, the National Guard christened the $13.5 million McClellan Readiness Center, which provides a joint operations center, assembly hall, classrooms and administrative space for a collection of units.
On any given day, Keith said, up to 500 people, many in military uniforms, work at Fort McClellan. On weekends, that figure exponentially increases.
“McClellan is a very, very active post,” Hill said.
The Army built Pelham Range during World War II as a training site for Fort McClellan soldiers, a use that continued during the Korean and Vietnam wars. But closure of the main post didn’t end the tell-tale Pelham Range training “booms” that rattle nearby residents’ windows.
At Pelham Range, Keith said, the National Guard built mock cities that resembled those in Afghanistan and Iraq. (The Army also constructed a mock Vietnam village and practice trenches for World War I at Fort McClellan.) Soldiers would not only train in normal combat drills, they would also face situations specific to Afghanistan and Iraq — namely, training against mobs of mock protestors that would show soldiers “how you work around the enemy element when the civilian population is right there with them.”
It’s likely that Biden’s decision to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan will reverberate throughout Washington this spring and summer. In his joint statement with Inhofe, Rogers didn’t mention the Afghanistan War’s symbiotic relationship to the growth for Anniston’s National Guard site. Keith, the former garrison commander at Fort McClellan, can fill in the gaps.
Fort McClellan’s growth “is not going to stop if Afghanistan goes away,” Keith said. “This is how the Guard and Reserve components train today.”
This article is written by Phillip Tutor from The Anniston Star and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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