Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Clover Park School District broke ground on the future site of JBLMs Hillside Elementary School Monday, signifying the official start of a yearlong construction project to completely rebuild Hillside and Carter Lake Elementary Schools.
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 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 their families are well taken care of.
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 will be demolished and rebuilt from the ground up, are just the first of six of the installations seven schools the department plans to renovate in the future.
All six fall in the top 20 percent of the 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 represents the states 6th Congressional 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 DOD, Congress and the White House the need for a $250 million addition to the fiscal year 2011 defense appropriations bill.
Were 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, Im 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 were 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 years bill.
Susie Johnson, assistant deputy for Child, Youth and School Services for the Department of the Army, said 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, on call to deploy at any time, added piece of mind.
The relationship to schools on a military installation is critical to readiness, she said. We wont be able to keep our force man our force if Soldiers and Airmen and Sailors and Marines dont 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 ones 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 whos 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. He also praised the JBLM community for remaining one of the most robust hes 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 hes 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 said, 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.