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Commander's call Focus: Katrina recovery, ORI, A-76

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Brig. Gen. Paul Capasso believes 2007 is going to be a time of unparalleled growth, opportunities and challenges for Keesler.

In two commander's calls last week, the dominant issues for the 81st Training Wing commander were post-Katrina construction progress, the upcoming Operational Readiness Inspection and resumption of the A-76 competitive sourcing process.

"It's not going to be an easy year," General Capasso said. "Despite the fact that some of you are still rebuilding your homes and your lives, you continue to do amazing things for Keesler and the community. You come to work, you keep your head up as you do the impossible. Every day you're setting new standards for excellence, and I appreciate it."

Several major construction projects begin soon, and military family housing is the "long tent pole" for Keesler, according to the general.

A $287.8 million military housing construction project begins in April, providing 1,067 new homes. The first home is scheduled for delivery in December. The project completion date is April 2010.

"We're not just building homes -- we're building communities," the general emphasized. "All of the homes will have three or four bedrooms and garages. We're changing out streets and utilities to get the configuration and densities we want."

Another plan to meet Keesler's housing needs is the acquisition of 160 housing units near Vancleave that became available when Naval Station Pascagoula closed.

Stores come tumbling down

The general is excited about the demolition of the hurricane-ravaged base exchange and commissary within the next 60 days, which he sees as huge symbols of progress.

Contracts for the new structures should be awarded in February, with construction beginning in March. The 18-month project builds a $40 million exchange and a $38.6 million commissary just south of McBride Library and the temporary commissary.

Other signs of revival are the opening of a 40,000-square-foot Army and Air Force Exchange Service mini mart and reopening of the marina, both set for March 1.

General Capasso said the new AAFES complex that opens this summer houses a gas station, auto center, shoppette, Class Six, barber shop and fast-food outlet.

Events center in design phase

"We're also in the design stage for a new events center on the former site of the Bay Breeze Golf Course pro shop and pool," he noted. "We'll consolidate our enlisted and officers clubs, community center and pro shop in one location. We're going to have a golf course built to U.S. Golf Association standards later this year."

A multi-facility contract is being advertised soon for construction of two facilities with a completion target of summer 2008. A $2.5 million post office is planned at the former playground site on Meadows Drive. A $5.5 million library replaces McBride Library, which is being displaced by the new exchange and commissary. It's being located near the heritage center.

"At Keesler, we don't have a money crunch when it comes to construction -- we have a labor crunch," said the general, who acknowledged the shortage of skilled craftsmen and laborers because of the rebuilding boom in the surrounding area since Katrina nearly 17 months ago.

ORI on tap for December

General Capasso's goal for December's ORI is an "outstanding" rating.

"You'd really tell the world that nothing can keep Keesler down -- look what you've accomplished in spite of the challenges of the past year and a half," he said. "A big part of the inspection is paperwork. Some of you lost offices and paperwork in the hurricane -- now's the time to plan how to put it back together. When inspectors come in, you'll be able to say, 'Here's my paperwork, here's my list of discrepancies, here's what we're doing to fix them.'"

The general said new procedures and new grading criteria for ORIs are in the works.

"The new checklists are supposed to be out by the end of January," he said. "With the new criteria, some of you may not even get inspected. But we still have a lot to do to get ready -- dig in, delve in, get back to the basics and figure out what needs to be done. You're going to see a lot of exercises over the next few months.

"We're going to send folks to Laughlin (Air Force Base, Texas) in the April time frame to look over their shoulders and find out what to expect," he explained. "Laughlin is the first base to be inspected under the new guidelines."

A-76 guidance on horizon

On the A-76 front, General Capasso acknowledged a Jan. 8 letter from Air Staff to Air Education and Training Command directed resumption of the A-76 process at Keesler. However, the second paragraph of the letter said the process could be implemented based on certain constraints, but without specific guidance on how to proceed.

"I expect milestones and guidance from Air Education and Training Command shortly," the general said. "As soon as we get the new guidance, we'll have a town hall meeting to explain what they want us to do, and we'll make the necessary notifications.

"I know it's been a long journey with A-76 and I know there's a lot of anxiety and frustration with the whole process," he said.

Other topics

Several other topics were covered, including force shaping, safety, permanent party dormitory upgrades, non-concurrent travel, basic allowance for housing, the current budget crunch and the 2007 hurricane season.

"Force shaping remains at the forefront of the Air Force's recapitalization efforts," said Lt. Col. Paul Valenzuela, 81st Mission Support Squadron commander.

"The good news is that on the enlisted side, the programs that the Air Force has in place are producing the desired results," he added. "The results haven't been as successful for officers, and a few of the programs have been expanded."

So far for fiscal 2007, the officer ranks have been reduced by 73 percent of the target, or 6,062 of the 8,317 that need to leave the Air Force. A reduction in force may be required to meet the goal.

Safety in focus

The Air Force's ground safety fatalities dropped from 935 in 1952 to only 46 in 2005. Even factoring in the reduction in force, that's an 86 percent drop, according to Lt. Col. Dave Pogue, wing safety officer.

"We do a good job of watching out for one another when we're on the clock and put a lot of energy into adhering to Air Force safety standards," he said. "But it's really important to talk about safety and incorporate personal risk management into our personal lives, after hours and as we travel back and forth to work."

One of 10 AETC ground mishap fatalities in FY06 was a Keesler member killed in an automobile accident on the way to a new assignment in another state.

General Capasso noted the improvements to Keesler's permanent party dorms, his top quality-of-life initiative. In the past three years, 380 rooms and 190 bathrooms in four permanent party dorms have been renovated with new closets, doors, vanities, fixtures, ceiling fans, shower stalls and wall and floor tiles.

All dayrooms have new tile and furniture, and new bathroom stalls have been installed in common areas. The first and second floors of Building 4906 have new closets, vanities, sinks, carpet, medicine cabinets and paint. Additionally, the consolidated dormitory management office has been remodeled.

Future upgrades include new tile for all laundry rooms and common area bathrooms, replacement of pool tables in all eight dorms, a keyless entry system for all dorm rooms and construction of a pavilion in the courtyard of Building 4904.

Non-concurrent travel restrictions lifted

Jan. 1, non-concurrent travel restrictions were lifted, so people can make permanent change-of-station moves to Keesler with their families.

April 1, officials hope to begin allowing married non-prior service students to bring their families depending on the length of courses, but details are still being worked out. The housing office confirmed students compete for base quarters on the same level as permanent party members, but if family housing is filled and names are placed on a waiting list, students might not be eligible due to their time remaining at Keesler.

Some questions focused on Keesler's relatively small basic allowance for housing increases for 2007, in spite of ongoing affordable housing issues.

Keesler has received about a 30-percent increase since Katrina struck.

"I don't know of any plans for midterm adjustments," General Capasso said.

Budget crunch

The general said the Air Force's current budget crunch may have an effect on permanent change-of-station moves, with extensions likely for some people.

One person asked why millions of dollars are being spent on landscaping on base since the hurricane, while major budget reductions are under way.

"We're talking about different pots of money here," General Capasso stressed. "Most emergency rebuilding funds for Keesler came through congressional approval, not the Air Force budget."

The current budget crisis is fueled by the need to recapitalize the Air Force's aircraft fleet, according to the general.

"The average age of our aircraft is more than 24 years," the general commented. "The B-52 is older than I am, but in better shape. We must begin to fund and start rebuilding our fleet. It's a long, expensive process and we must move forward now."

Heads up for hurricane season

General Capasso assured the audience that preparations are in the works to keep Keesler people safe if another major storm targets the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

"Hopefully, it will be another mild season, but since Katrina, we've become experts at dealing with hurricane threats, so we'll be ready for whatever heads our way," he said.

The hurricane season begins June 1.