FORT LEWIS, Wash. - There's nothing like careful planning to help navigate through a challenging time.

Faced with a "summer surge" of 6,500 Soldiers coming home from deployments between April and August 2008 that would swell the post population to 29,000, Fort Lewis officials spent months planning for what came to be known as "Perfect Storm 2008."

"The garrison commander said, we don't have a vehicle to identify all these problems. Let's make one," recalled John Austin, director of the Fort Lewis Plans, Analysis and Integration Office.

The result was a series of monthly Operational Planning Team meetings that brought together the installation's directorates to coordinate their efforts in preparing for the summer surge.

"It just made us take a good, hard look at the installation and what it was capable of doing," Austin said. "And once you figure out what your capabilities are, you can figure out what your needs are."

That effort was recognized by Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, who presented Fort Lewis with one of eight Quality of Life Awards at the 2008 Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. The awards acknowledged best practices adopted in support of the Soldier Family Action Plan, the Army Family Covenant and the Army Community Covenant.

Fort Lewis received the Command Team Quality of Life Award (Honorable Mention) during the "Strengthening Soldiers and Families Through Community Partnership" Family Forum at the AUSA meeting. The award demonstrated again why this is the post of choice for living and working through quality family programs and facilities.

"You can call it a blessing or you can call it a curse," said Austin, "but everybody wants to come to Fort Lewis."

The summer surge has passed, but the challenges of a busy post remain, so the monthly OPT meetings have continued.

"What we've found is it's a good tool," Austin said. "I have yet to sit in one of those meetings that I didn't say to myself at some point in there, 'I didn't know that,' because something always comes out."

"It's morphing into a monthly forum that's going to continue so that we can continue to address any potential friction points on the installation," said Georgia Tagaras-Gordon, PAIO plans specialist.

The meetings have strengthened the lines of communication and better prepared Fort Lewis for issues arising from future growth.

"I think it's increased awareness of what everybody else is doing," Austin said. "It will give us the opportunity to respond to things that we just didn't have in the past."

Bob Reinert is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.