In Fort Bragg, military families brace for economic 'perfect storm'

Ten years of war has made Fort Bragg, N.C., and the neighboring city of Fayetteville a magnet for federal support and sympathy. But as the war in Iraq comes to an end this month, base and city officials hope President Obama will use his visit on Wednesday to allay their fears about a possible dwindling of population numbers and the Pentagon lifeline that has kept the area afloat-both economically and emotionally. Over the course of the decade, Fayetteville's population grew 65.7 percent, bringing its total to 200,564 in the 2010 census. And Fort Bragg spokesman Ben Abel estimates 150,000 people (mostly, but not all from Fayetteville) either live on the military base or come to work there daily. The boom brought federal money into family and mental-health support services, construction projects, and new jobs for civilians on the base. But the Iraq drawdown threatens that support, specifically because of its timing around talks of defense cuts in Washington. President Obama has proposed a $450 billion cut to the defense budget over the next 12 years. Already Fort Bragg is carrying out a federal mandate to eliminate more than 400 civilian jobs. Whether the community will dry up after the war is anybody's guess, though everybody seems to be guessing. According to Brandon Plotnick, spokesman for the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, businesses are hopeful that the community that has grown up over the past decade will continue after the Iraq war, unlike the fallout following the first Gulf War. "[After Desert Storm] military action sort of died out, people disappeared," Plotnick said. "But there's a different culture and feeling around here now. People say, 'Hey, these people are going to stay and be part of our community.'" But another ill-timed hit to Fayetteville is a housing bubble created by Base Realignment and Closure legislation that, according to Plotnick, brought an estimated 50,000 military personnel and their families to the area from the closed Ft. McPherson in Atlanta. Developers went overboard to accommodate the newcomers who, in the end, were unable to sell their homes in Atlanta. Many of the new houses are now undervalued. The decrease in defense funding and the housing bubble create what Plotnick calls an "uneasy feeling" among business owners and what Army wife Rebekah Sanderlin called a "perfect storm". Sanderlin, a local magazine editor from Nashville, Tenn., said it took her a long time to adjust to life in Fayetteville; now she says she can't imagine ever leaving. She fears federal cuts to services like counseling, which she says saved her marriage after her husband returned home a changed person. "Now you have couples who are not used to living together trying to live together," Sanderlin says. Thousands of troops are now returning to the U.S. after tours in Iraq that often last 12 months. "There's a fear that resources in the community may be tapped dry," she said. Some of those resources go toward counseling. In 2002, over the span of six weeks, four soldiers returning from war to Fayetteville shot their wives. Two turned the guns on themselves. "It cuts both ways," Sanderlin says of war's effect on Fayetteville. "We have a high divorce rate, high alcoholism rate, high spousal and child-abuse rate. But at the same time you have a community that pulls together and we have a high volunteer rate."
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