U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll Commander Col. Michael Larsen hosted his second round of town hall meetings since assuming command of the installation August 2015.
Meeting with hundreds of garrison residents and Marshallese workforce members in five separate gatherings, Larsen addressed issues impacting the community and mission sides of the installation and other issues impacting overall morale and welfare.
Topics included everything from future garrison construction projects, B-boats and golf fees, to private organizations, ferry schedules, the Zamperini Dining Facility and teen curfews.
First he met with Kwajalein C-badge employees (the Marshallese workforce) at the Island Memorial Chapel, Feb. 17, and followed with a meeting for Kwajalein residents at the High School Multi-Purpose (MP) Room later that evening. A separate meeting with Kwajalein teenagers at the MP room the next day provided a forum for Larsen and Command Sgt. Maj. Angela Rawlings to hear comments from the young residents and discuss teen issues. Larsen and his staff concluded the Town Hall meeting tour with sessions at the Trade Winds Theater, Feb. 19, for C-badge employees and residents on Roi-Namur.
During an opening 45-minute address to the Kwajalein community, Larsen hit on a series of big-ticket projects that are either currently in progress on the garrison or will break ground within the next five years. The ongoing renovation of the Macy's building and the continued construction of the U.S. Air Force Space Fence facility are big movers, but others are on the way.
A 100-percent overhaul of the Yuk Club building will resume in the near future, he said, after KRS, USAG-KA and the Army obtain final approvals. The former club will house the Zamperini Dining Facility. Within the next two years, a renovation project will begin on Kwajalein's Bucholz Army Airfield, followed by a similar project at Roi's Dyess Army Airfield. This summer, construction teams will swarm Echo Pier on Kwajalein to completely renovate the nearly 100-year-old concrete pier--built by the Japanese in the 1920's--used to harbor everything from ferryboats and catamarans to the K.M.R.S.S. Worthy and supply barges.
One announcement in particular got a lot of attention from Kwajalein families: the colonel stated the garrison's intentions to build 22 new housing units on the island within the next few years. Current plans also call for construction of another 30 units, beginning in 2022. These efforts, of course, are subject to government approval, the Command reminded; deviations from the plans may need to be enforced. Lastly, plans for building a brand-new hospital on the island are currently under development, and the funding is requested in the 2021 budget.
Larsen reiterated the garrison community's support for the Space Fence construction teams and reminded USAG-KA's avid boaters that those Space Fence personnel who obtain B-boat licenses have the same rights and access to renting B-boats as other permanent residents. Lamenting the lack of working recreational powerboats, Larsen said that the Command is exploring all avenues to replace the communities' old, battered fleet.
Quality of Life funds cannot be funneled to the cause, he reminded town hall attendees. "It's complicated, but we have to find a solution," he said. "We're working on it." Implementation of a non-appropriated fund instrumentality could provide a source of cash for funding morale-boosting programs like the garrison's recreational boating, Command staff reminded. However, while garrison leaders have submitted the NAFI packet to the contracting officer, ongoing negotiations may delay the fund's implementation for months.
Also on the subject of watercraft, Larsen and his staff re-iterated their request that all USAG-KA residents who keep private boats on the installation obtain a quote for liability insurance as soon as possible. The insurance plans, he explained, are required by all boat owners and will get the garrison's private vessel ownership practices in line with those of the Army's other 75 garrisons, while protecting boat owners and the Army from damage incurred by private individuals. The garrison's current policy already requires insurance.
Larsen explained that the recent increase of annual Roi Golf Course fees was designed to allow the garrison to collect more cash and reinvest that revenue into the golf course and other island recreational programs. The fee hike isn't set in stone, the colonel said, and if the communities and the Command come to the conclusion that it's unfair, it can be revised. But by paying more, Larsen explained, fees fall more closely in line with golf course fees at other Pacific military installations, while creating more cash flow for needed purchases. Some residents called the plan into question, reminding meeting attendees that until the non-appropriate fund is activated the garrison cannot retain and reinvest those monies. Larsen agreed with their counterpoint and said that he and his staff will take another look at the policy while the NAFI remains in the negotiation phase.
The issue of private organizations engaged more than 20 minutes of meeting time during the Kwajalein residents town hall. All registered private organizations are required to pass through a series of steps, which include obtaining private liability insurance, registering with the IRS, developing plans to reimburse the Army for utility expenses and more. Larsen immediately acknowledged the challenge that this list of requirements will pose to the community of small organizations on the garrison and said that the groups do a commendable job in "filling the MWR void" on the installation. However, every single private organization in all 75 other Army garrisons face the same requirements, he said. The intent is not to shut down a single organization, he added. Rather, the intention is to make sure that non-compliant organizations do not have to disband.
Other issues discussed during the resident town halls included: the ongoing drought; prices of Surfway items; Ri'katak Program parents' access to the garrison for school functions; the question of hiring an orthodontist to visit the garrison periodically; families' all-weekend access to the Zamperini Dining Facility; residents smoking too close to BQ entrances and more.
In meetings with RMI C-badge employees, the command team also discussed a wide range of issues. A selection of subjects addressed: the sale of charcoal for Enniburr residents; the issue of storing personal items at the Roi ferry port; C-badge access to the air terminals and transportation from the Kwajalein terminal to the Dock Security Checkpoint; employment issues relating to wages, morale and benefits like workman's compensation; prioritizing C-badge workers' access to ferry boats over those travelling between islands for non-work purposes; potable water distribution and the ongoing drought; RMI shopping days at AAFES; access to the Bank of the Marshall Islands office on Kwaj; the use of discarded lumber for construction projects outside of the garrison islands; USAG-KA's involvement with the Joint Labor Review Board and the Community Relations Council and more.
During a separate town hall meeting designed especially for Kwajalein teenagers, Larsen hit on a swathe of topics important to the island's younger crowd. Several Kwajalein Jr./Sr. High School students wanted to know why they are able to obtain B-boat licenses at the age of 16, but not able to rent the boats until the age of 18.
During the teen meeting, CSM Rawlings introduced her new mentorship program and invited them to join the group learn more about it. The program begins April 11.
Other issues on the teens' minds included a perennial problem for Kwajalein teens, the lack of driver's education opportunities on the island. During the meeting they also addressed the need for more lifeguards to join the Pools and Beach staff; the need to lift curfew limitations to KHS teens following graduation; the need for increased clean-up efforts around vacant "new housing" units; Ri'katak students' access to Kwajalein outside of school functions; the desire for a school trip to Bigej with transportation included and more.
"Your constructive questions make sense to me, and I appreciate you all having such a strong interest in impacting your community and peers," Larsen told the teens.
His message to them, and all residents and employees on USAG-KA was clear: "I am always ready to listen," Larsen said. "Force me to question logic, and together we can change things for the better!"