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We’re a Kmart town with Saks Fifth Avenue politics

Fri, Jan 4, 2013

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“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. … In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

— Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address, Jan. 17, 1961.

 

When President Eisenhower addressed the nation 52 years ago, not a single defense contractor called Colorado Springs home. We were a military city, not a military-industrial city.

That dynamic hasn’t changed. We have lots of mom-and-pop contractors, specialized shops with a handful of employees, a few medium-sized businesses, and a comparatively minor Lockheed Martin division with about 1,200 employees. We aren’t home to any military-industrial giants, such as Boeing, Raytheon or General Dynamics, but we are home to tens of thousands of active-duty and retired military men and women.

That simple fact continues to define the Pikes Peak region, often in ways we scarcely recognize.

According to a Department of Defense website, militaryinstallations.com, Fort Carson currently hosts 18,900 active-duty service members, 47,250 family members and 3,119 civilian workers. Excluding civilian employees, deployed service members and families living outside of El Paso County, it’s likely that more than 25,000 men and women aged 18-45 are transient residents of the county.

How many of them vote in local elections? Hardly any. There’s a difference between the place you call home and the place where you’re stationed.

Those numbers skew our political culture.

Imagine a city with three manufacturing plants, each employing 6,000 workers. And imagine that none of the workers vote, that none of them belong to a union, and that none have any lasting ties to the community. That’s Colorado Springs, a Kmart town with Saks Fifth Avenue politics.

That effect is conjectural at best — but there’s another easily quantified impact.

What, for example, do former Mayor Lionel Rivera, Mayor Steve Bach, and City Councilors Scott Hente, Bernie Herpin, Val Snider and Tim Leigh have in common? They were all stationed in Colorado Springs during their military service, and either stayed here or came back. Herpin, Hente and Snider are military retirees, while Rivera, Bach and Leigh left after a few years in uniform.

Career officers well understand the basic axiom of military service: up or out. The four branches of service are rigidly defined hierarchies, where captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels are the middle managers. Make it to lieutenant colonel, and hold your breath — because if you don’t make it to full bird, your military career is over.

So what do you do? You’re under 50, you’ve had big responsibilities, you’ve acquired marketable skills and you’ve earned a nice pension. You settle down in Colorado Springs, you volunteer and mesh smoothly into the community.

It’s a story that we’ve heard hundreds of times, and it’s always fun to note how rank corresponds (or doesn’t correspond) with civilian status. You could argue that the city’s power structure is peopled by lieutenant colonels who didn’t get promoted, or note that two of our most creative and original leaders are former PFCs (as in private first class) Bach and Leigh.

Fun aside, the steady trickle of retirees may substantially increase in the next few years. Those who are already here are living longer, and military downsizing may yield a bumper crop of light colonels, not to mention generals. We should see a different kind of surge — a benign influx of model citizens who will focus on making our quirky city a better place.

They’ll have to find their place in the civilian hierarchy, though. And if they find themselves initially discombobulated, they can take comfort from the late Lt. Gen. (retired) Jack Forrest, who served on City Council under Mayor Bob Isaac, a fellow West Point grad who left the Army as a captain.

“When I was a major,” Forrest once told me with a smile, “I hoped I’d make general, but I never thought I’d be taking orders from a captain.”

So if the much-decorated Forrest (three Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, two Combat Infantryman’s Badges and the Legion of Merit) can adapt to a different status in life, so can any one of us.

Especially lieutenant colonels.

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