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June 23, 2005
Grand Forks, N.D. — About 2,000 people filled the Chester Fritz Auditorium in Grand Forks to show support for the Grand Forks Air Force base and the North Dakota Air National Guard.
The Pentagon wants to move the air refueling tankers stationed at Grand Forks. That would eliminate nearly 5,000 jobs in the area.
Joanne Renfro said her business and personal life would suffer. Renfro owns a small business that does work on the Grand Forks base. She says many of her friends and neighbors are Air Force personnel.
"It's a part of our life," she said. "The base has been here 50 years. It would be like someone saying to us, we're going to close the university, we're going to close downtown. And you think, wait a minute. This isn't right."
Renfro says there's strong community support for the Air Force base.
Grand Forks attorney John Marshall told the commission that support deepened after the devasting flood of 1997 hit Grand Forks. The Air Force base opened its doors to some 4,500 Grand Forks residents who needed temporary shelter.
"They were our friends before," he said. "But they put their arms around us and they held us. And when we cried, they cried."
Marshall says losing the base would be like losing part of a family.
North Dakota officials say there are also some very practical reasons to keep tankers in Grand Forks. They argue the Grand Forks base is strategically located to quickly get tankers deployed around the world.
The military has spent $327 million in the past 10 years upgrading the Grand Forks base.
The base has won numerous awards for excellence in recent years.
Sen Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., says the Grand Forks base is consistently rated one of the best in the country.
"Evaluate all of the bases, in all of the Air Force, in all of this country, and the Grand Forks base is simply the best," said the senator.
The Base Realignment and Closure Commission also heard from members of Congress, governors, and generals who want to keep the Air National Guard fighter mission in Fargo.
The Happy Hooligans F-16 fighters will soon be retired. The Pentagon wants to eliminate the flying mission. Instead, pilots in Fargo would fly unmanned aerial vehicles that would be based in Grand Forks.
State officials say they welcome the UAV mission. But they argue it makes no sense to take some of the best fighter pilots in the world out of commission.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., says it is a mistake to downsize bases that have such strong community support.
"Minnesota Army National Guard leads the nation in recruitment and retention," he said. "The North Dakota Guard has a 98 percent retention rate. We're doing more than our fair share and that has everything to do with the strong support of these communities. In these tough times it would be unwise to turn our back on this source of some our best fighting men and women."
The Fargo-based Happy Hooligans have won the William Tell competition twice, beating the best pilots in the Air Force in spite of having older aircraft.
The Hooligans were first to respond after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and patrolled the skies over Washington, D.C.
They have flown more than 140,000 hours without a major accident, one of the best safety records in air force history.
Sen. Dorgan says you can not replace such experienced pilots.
"I can't believe the Air Force would want to take fighters away from Americas best flyers," he said. "A carpenter I think would call that about half a bubble off plumb. You don't take planes away from americas best pilots."
Commissioner James Billbray responded by saying he hopes to make the Hooligans happy.
The Base Realignment and Closure Commission continues gathering information through the summer. They will make recommendations to President Bush in early September.