CENTENNIAL: Historian reflects on the year that changed Fort Knox

By Eric Pilgrim | Fort Knox NewsOctober 24, 2018

Historian reflects on the year that changed Fort Knox
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

On May 19, 2005, the Fort Knox Turret newspaper announced a shift in the way the post would operate going forward. The 70-plus year cavalry and armor legacy that the Army post had in part been known for was ending. That training and doctrine mission would be moving to the home of the infantry at Fort Benning, Georgia.

A wide spanning and historic Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure had reached Fort Knox and brought about the post's largest transformation since World War II. Before the official BRAC announcements were made, however, some questioned whether the post would continue to play a critical role for the military.

"Fort Knox and its neighboring communities displayed a gamut of varied emotions Friday following the release of the anticipated Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure recommendation list," the newspaper article starts.

In the middle of this time of flux stood one man, who found himself thrust into the spotlight for a brief moment to voice an understanding of the need for change and the reality of that change. But before media attention turned toward Fort Knox Archaeologist Dr. Criss Helmkamp, he was like everyone else -- a concerned civilian employee in front of a TV, waiting for a big announcement.

"We hadn't received anything official, and all of us in Environmental gathered together in the Environmental office where they had a television, which hardly anybody had back in those days," said Helmkamp. "There was a press conference with folks asking questions about the BRAC, and we were given a handout about what was going on at Knox. The big thing was that we weren't closing, so the prevailing feeling was relief."

Helmkamp said he'll always remember the date because of when it landed.

"It was Friday the 13th," said Helmkamp. "That was what we jokingly called 'BRAC Friday.'

By Monday, local media organizations were calling the Fort Knox Public Affairs Office for interviews.

"On Tuesday, I got a call from PAO saying, 'We need you over at the Patton Museum.' 'Why?'," said Helmkamp. "So, I hustled over to the Patton Museum and there's the [Louisville] Courier-Journal. They do a quick interview, they shoot some photos, and the next day I find myself on the cover of the Courier-Journal, and I'm just a chump GS employee. What do I know?"

Helmkamp said he never did find out why he was selected for the role of spokesman at that time.

"That was my role in the whole BRAC thing," said Helmkamp. "Of all the thousands of civilians, they selected me. I'll never figure that one out."

On the front page of that May 14, 2005 Courier-Journal article, titled "Proposals affect 800 facilities," Helmkamp is depicted standing in the foreground with a tank in the background and a quote that reads, "My first reaction, like everyone else, was one of relief that it wasn't going to be closed."

Leading up to the announcement, Helmkamp said what he remembered most were all the rumors flying around about where Fort Knox would be when the dust finally settled.

"The place was just swirling with rumors -- 'I know somebody who knows something and they told me Knox is going to be closed.' 'I heard that the Armor School is going away.' 'Oh, nothing's going to happen. They're not going to do anything; and if they do anything, they'll reverse it,'" said Helmkamp. "As we got closer to the day and you got a sense of who knew what was really going on, we kind of got the message that the Armor School was going to go away, and that something was coming in, but we didn't know what."

Helmkamp said he remembered how some official numbers surfaced indicating that Fort Knox would be losing upwards to 10,000 Soldiers from its rosters, which created angst among many.

"That was more, I think, than any other installation would be losing that was staying open," said Helmkamp. "What it was, the number of Soldiers was trainees. They weren't permanent party personnel, so it looked much more dire than it really was."

He said the trade-off, according to Army officials, was that the installation would be getting an infantry brigade combat team, U.S. Army Human Resources Command and U.S. Army Accessions Command, among other organizations. Still, the news of armor going away was unwanted by some members of the community as well as those with Fort Knox armor and cavalry ties.

"The emotional impact that this had on the surrounding communities, that was the big impact," said Helmkamp. "It was sort of as if Knox was going to lose its identity."

While it has been more than seven years since the Armor Center and School operated on Fort Knox, Helmkamp said Army officials and, specifically post officials, have done an outstanding job over the years of rebuilding the Fort Knox legacy into the gold standard of today.

"Who could have guessed in 2005 that we would be sitting here 13 years later with six two-star commands," said Helmkamp. "Fort Knox is here to stay; as permanent as permanent can be."

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