By Sgt. Christopher M. Gaylord, 5th Mobile Public Affairs DetachmentAugust 2, 2012
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. (Aug. 2, 2012) -- Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Clover Park School District broke ground on the future site of JBLM's Hillside Elementary School, July 30, signifying the official start of a yearlong construction project to rebuild Hillside and Carter Lake Elementary Schools completely.
Leadership from the installation and Department of the Army, and members of the Washington State Congressional Delegation, whose efforts to reconstruct the facilities stood three years in the making, also solidified their commitment to JBLM schools with the signing of an "Education of Military Children Covenant."
The written agreement declares a pledge to ensure JBLM children have sufficient educational resources at all times.
"This is really a very important day, not just for JBLM but the total Army," said Undersecretary of the Army Joseph W. Westphal, who joined Hillside and Carter Lake students as they shoveled up dirt just a few hundred feet from the current Hillside Elementary location in anticipation of the project.
"We owe it to those men and women who put the uniform on and who risk their lives for us every day to ensure that their Families are well taken care of," he said.
After dozens of tours and extensive assessments of schools on military installations across the country, the Department of Defense deemed Hillside and Carter Lake two of the top five most in need of immediate attention.
"We found that we were inadequate in a number of ways," Westphal said.
The schools, which the Department of Defense will demolish and rebuild from the ground up, are just the first of six of the installation's seven schools the department plans to renovate in the near future.
All six fall in the top 20 percent of 146 military schools across the nation in total requiring attention, placing them among the most urgent in need of restoration.
Westphal said the mission to rebuild and refurbish schools on stateside military installations, which were chosen because of substandard condition and considerable lack of facilities and space, started with a phone call from Washington State Congressman Norm Dicks.
Dicks, who oversees the state's 6th district, contacted Westphal in 2010 after Clover Park School District representatives informed Dicks some of their schools were inadequate. Dicks requested an investigation into the state of DOD schools.
"We got an assessment that this was a much bigger problem than we thought," Westphal said.
The results of the nationwide assessment by the department, which rated 19 schools at seven separate installations in poor condition, justified to the department, U.S. Congress and the White House a $250 million addition to the fiscal year 2011 defense appropriations bill.
"We're here today, really as a principal product of Norm Dicks," Westphal said, praising the persistent efforts of Dicks, who will soon retire.
"As I leave, I'm very proud to be able to finally take care of this problem," Dicks said.
"One of the biggest concerns for our deployed troops is for their families and kids to be properly cared for," he said. "These are the children of the people that we're sending to Afghanistan and Iraq, and they ought to be in a decent school."
A second increment of $250 million for fixing military schools was added to the defense appropriation bill for fiscal year 2012, and another $270 million, Dicks said, will be added to next year's bill.
Susie Johnson, assistant deputy for Child, Youth and Schools for the Department of the Army, said the DOD has already awarded grants to schools on Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort Sill, Okla.; Fort Polk, La.; and Fort Riley, Kan., among other installations.
Johnson said putting money into the infrastructural improvement of military schools will give service members, whom the military can call on at any time to deploy, added piece of mind.
"The relationship to schools on a military installation is critical to readiness," she said. "We won't be able to keep our force -- man our force -- if Soldiers and Airmen and Sailors and Marines don't know that their kids are going to be taken care of and have quality education."
Westphal, a father of four and grandfather of six, can relate from his own experience to having concern over the quality of education for one's children.
"Their education and their care, particularly at the lower grades, grade school and up, was really important to me as a parent," he said. "I can only imagine what it must mean to a Soldier who's thousands of miles across the ocean putting his or her life at risk."
Westphal concluded that it takes a great deal of resilience to deal with the many transitions of military life, wherein child education often suffers, and praised the JBLM community for remaining one of the most robust he's seen of military communities adjusting to frequent deployments over the last decade.
"Over the last 12 years or more, this installation has gone through such tremendous high-operational tempo," he said, explaining that he's been to the installation both at times when it more resembled a ghost town and times when Soldiers and families were home together.
"Those transitions have got to be tough, but this is a very resilient place," he added, citing overseas conflicts, a suffering economy and the military lifestyle in general for having made life tough on service members and their families. "Despite all that turbulence we have around us, this installation continues to march forward."