One of the strongest advocates of the Kwajalein Atoll community spent a few days on the Army garrison to reconnect with the workforce and witness progress of several projects here in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI).
Lt. Gen. David Mann, commander of U.S. Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) and U.S. Army Strategic Command (ARSTRAT) arrived at U.S. Army Garrison Kwajalein Atoll, Feb. 23, marking his fifth excursion to the remote islands since taking command in August 2013.
His four-day visit included some time at the U.S. Air Force funded Space Fence construction site where he noted visible progress in the facility. Then traveling by boat and helicopter, he toured the neighboring islands of Ebeye and Enniburr (also known as Third Island), where the Marshallese workforce who support operations on Kwajalein and Roi-Namur reside.
"We can't complete our mission here without their (Marshallese) hard work every day," Col. Mike Larsen explained to Mann during a command briefing on day 1 of his visit. "We are one team, and they are just as important to our National Security as we are."
Mann said he shares Larsen's Teamwork philosophy, and is aware of the challenging living conditions for many of the Marshallese people.
"I know we are good partners with them, and it inspires me to see what they (the RMI) do for us, and how we have worked together for so many years," Mann said.
The visiting leader held two town halls speaking with the U.S. residents of Kwajalein and Roi-Namur. The gatherings came on the heels of the garrison commander's town halls the previous week. Many of the issues were already on the garrison's list for action, but some raised new questions about the possibilities for the future of Kwajalein.
"There is a lot of concern about space capabilities, and obviously this installation plays a critical role in missile defense, space surveillance and awareness and tracking of objects," Mann said. "The threat (to our country) doesn't pause, so neither do we. There is always risk, but that's why we make wise investments… It's about taking care of families and providing the best support possible," Mann said.
Kwajalein resident Tommy Ryan asked Mann about a timeline for implementation of a Morale Welfare and Recreation (MWR) program on the garrison so that funds can be reinvested into the local community for improvements.
"I think that by this Summer we will see some modifications by Installation Management Command (IMCOM) that will provide us with the ability to retain some of the resources that can be used to reinvest here," Mann answered. "It has been very challenging because more people have claims on resources than there are resources available. But we are further along than we were in 2013 when we began this journey, and we are seeing the fruits of that collaboration."
Other topics discussed included the Cash Sales program, which is discontinued now but is being reviewed for possible exception to policy; the status of the Compact Agreement between the U.S. and Marshallese governments; possible resources for funding a new airport runway at Bucholz Airfield; discussion about TRICARE insurance services and the difference between the contractor-managed Kwajalein hospital and a traditional overseas Military Treatment Facility (MTF); and Fiscal Year 2022 funding for increased hospital services. Mann explained the reason for the long-term planning and budgeting for the Kwajalein hospital and other major projects on the garrison.
"Budget is a challenge right now. We have a lot of priorities we are pursuing in a thoughtful manner," Mann said. "But please trust me when I say that we're doing better than we've done in the past, and a lot of it is because we are starting to gain the recognition this installation deserves in terms of its importance to our national security."
He also mentioned his concerns about the DoD budget for Fiscal Year 2017, but said in the big picture, Kwajalein is in good shape.
"In terms of space and missile defense, we're not doing too bad, and I think that is a reflection of how we're kind of holding our own in that regard," Mann explained. "We're continuing to do (missile) tests out here, and we have new capabilities like Space Fence being built here, and there is potential to receive investments to upgrade the centers that we have."
Mann said he understands the importance of nourishing balance in the Kwajalein community.
"I want to make sure you know that it is not just about mission here, it is about quality of life," Mann told the packed room of approximately 250 people. "I take that very seriously. Every time I have an opportunity to talk about remote (military) locations, I bring up Kwajalein and the incredible work you do here."
Mann said he continues to inform those who make budget decisions involving Kwajalein Atoll military assets, and recommends they to visit the Atoll for themselves whenever possible. "I always encourage our advocates and leaders to come here so they can see for themselves the amazing things you do with limited resources, and how they can help improve things for you."
He said that when other top military and civilian leaders visit Kwajalein, and they see the importance of the installation, that helps build the advocacy base he wants for the USAG-KA and RTS missions.
"Your commander is committed to you, there is no doubt about that, but he has to comply with regulations too, just like I do, and I know he is working hard to find legal solutions for you." Mann said. "Lawyers in Washington, D.C. read the letter of the law, but they've never been to Kwaj, so they don't understand the unique nature of what you deal with here."
With no more questions coming from the crowd, Mann summed up his thoughts about the people and mission of Kwajalein.
"On behalf of my family, thank you for all you do out here. This place is not going away because this is the only place we can do certain things for America," Mann said to the residents. "Kwajalein is a national treasure, and it needs to get more recognition and funding, but we are on our way."