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Massachusetts Guard complex gets new lease on life

CAMP EDWARDS, Mass -- 1st Lt. Francis McGinn shipped out for the Pacific from Camp Edwards when World War II was raging. He was killed during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines in October 1944. Sixty-four years later, his grandson, who has the same name, is playing a key role in transforming this old Army post into a modern training ground for troops preparing to engage in a different kind of war - the Global War on Terrorism.

Col. Francis McGinn, who told of his grandfather's war record, took command of the Massachusetts Army National Guard Training Site on July 1. A new tactical training base and another compound for training troops in urban warfare have been built on that site. They are among the changes that have made 2008 a renaissance year for the 30-square-mile Massachusetts Military Reservation situated beside Bourne and Falmouth on upper Cape Cod. It is the largest training area in New England.

The Otis Air National Guard Base on the reservation is also undergoing major changes. The F-15 fighters that once filled the Cape Cod skies during daily training sorties have flown away for good. The 102nd Fighter Wing has been changed to the considerably quieter and lower-profile 102nd Intelligence Wing.

A final ceremonial sortie was flown in late January, and the wing's name was officially changed on April 1. Now the wing is gearing up for its new mission of collecting, analyzing and distributing information about enemy activities to U.S. and allied combatant commanders around the world.

A 5,000-square-foot, high-tech intelligence center, or digital ground station (DGS), is being built inside a much larger hanger that a year ago bristled with twin-engine jet fighters. The center is expected to reach initial operational capability next January. A new center that could encompass 40,000 square feet will expand the wing's intelligence capabilities and responsibilities and is scheduled to be built in 2010 or 2011, giving the unit its full operational capability.

All of this year's activity has been undertaken with an appropriate but minimal amount of fanfare. But McGinn and Col. Anthony Schiavi, the Air Guard wing's commander, are only too happy to tell people about all that is going on short of breaching operational security.

"Transitions are never easy, but we are over the bulk of the personnel transitions," Schiavi reported in early September. "Well over 250 people have gone through intelligence or other technical schools. Many of them have deployed to other DGS sites to get experience and to support the surge in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are hoping to bring in 120 new people this year. We are light years ahead of where we thought we'd be six months into our conversion."

The fighter wing had about 940 Air Guard personnel, Schiavi said. The intelligence wing will be slightly smaller, about 890 people. "Including civilians, we'll be about 1,000 strong," he added.

The wing will also stand up an Air Operations Group of about 140 Airmen on Oct. 1 to provide command and control augmentation to the 608th Air Operations Center at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

Two forces have been at work here. The Air Guard wing's new mission is the result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Act. The Army Guard's modernized presence has been made possible by extensive, and expensive, actions to safeguard the environment, especially the vast aquifer beneath the post that is the primary source of drinking water for this part of Massachusetts.

The Environmental Protection Agency suspended most military training at Camp Edwards in May 1997, the first time in American history that military training was halted because of environmental and public health concerns. The EPA in January 2000 ordered the National Guard to begin removing unexploded ordnance from the base and to clean up groundwater and soils polluted by decades of use.

Eight years later, the base is back in the business, under stringent guidelines, of training troops. One small-arms range has been opened after being refurbished with an 18-inch thick blanket of rubber granules that capture the lead bullets, keeping them out of the soil, explained Bill Fitzpatrick, deputy director of the post's Environmental Readiness Center. Two more such ranges are expected to be ready for next year's training, he said.

Camp Edwards, which became a National Guard training facility in 1935, is now poised to reclaim its place as New England's version of the Army's 1,000-square-mile National Training Center in southern California.

Nearly 6,000 people have trained at Camp Edwards this year. They have learned lessons about convoy operations and roadside bombs they may need to know in Iraq or Afghanistan. They have sampled life in a forward operation base at the new 10-acre Tactical Training Base Kelley, dedicated to Sgt. Michael Kelley. They have tasted urban warfare at Military Operations on Urban Terrain Site Calero, dedicated to Maj. Jeffrey Calero. Kelley and Calero were Massachusetts Army Guard Soldiers when they were killed in Afghanistan in, respectively, June 2005 and October 2007.

About 300 Soldiers, in two classes, went through a 10-day Air Assault School in August. And in September, Coast Guard Reservists in Port Security Unit 301, which is also based at Camp Edwards, were trained by members of a Massachusetts Army Guard tactical training team for a deployment within the next two years.

Although all of this has happened rather quietly from a national perspective, it has gotten its share of local attention. The daily Cape Cod Times has documented the revitalization with a series of stories this summer and has given the effort its editorial support.

"... the 15,000-acre camp has played an important role in training troops for Iraq and Afghanistan," stated an editorial published on Aug. 20. "Over the past decade, the editorial board has often criticized the Massachusetts National Guard for its failure to prevent groundwater pollution at Camp Edwards, but we've never questioned the individual soldier or the importance of troop training."

Col. Francis McGinn, who never knew the grandfather who was killed during World War II, believes he has been given that responsibility at an opportune time.

He was less than impressed, McGinn confided, with the training that many U.S. troops had received for warfare against terrorists when they arrived at Forward Operating Base Speicher in Iraq, near Tikrit, when he was the garrison commander there in 2005.

"My family history is kind of neat," McGinn said, 'but it is more important to me to be the enabler in the process of training Soldiers. I am a lot more excited about training Soldiers to deploy in the right way."