TAMPA — The Pentagon recently awarded a $41.5 million contract to build a 350-room lodging facility at MacDill Air Force Base, the latest in a decade-long series of projects that has transformed the MacDill landscape.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Monday, base commander Col. Scott DeThomas said the lodging — "visiting quarters" in Air Force jargon — is needed to replace badly outdated quarters scattered around the base, some more than 40 years old.
The lodging, he said, won't hurt local hotels because the base is simply replacing outdated housing used by visiting civilians and military personnel or personnel assigned to the base in need of temporary quarters.
"It's not like we're creating 350 new rooms," DeThomas said. Instead, the base is "replacing rooms in dire need of replacement."
A contract was awarded to Carothers Construction, a Mississippi company, on Sept. 10. DeThomas said groundbreaking will happen soon. Completion is expected by 2014.
Housing for military personnel and visiting civilians has become ever more critical at MacDill since the 2001 terrorist attacks. The base is home to the nation's premiere combatant commands — U.S. Special Operations Command and Central Command — that have spearheaded operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nearly $1 billion in MacDill projects has been completed since about 2007 as both the base and its tenant commands have grown, from a new $75 million headquarters for CentCom to an $87 million medical clinic.
DeThomas, as commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing, is something akin to a town mayor, albeit the "mayor" of a town with a $4.6 billion economic impact on the Tampa Bay area. About 15,000 military and civilian personnel work on the base daily.
DeThomas, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, took command of the wing in July after having served as commander of the 386th Air Expeditionary Group in Kuwait, where he was the recipient of a Bronze Star.
DeThomas said he does not expect a major change in personnel assigned to the wing with the end of combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014. Less clear, he said, would be the impact on the base's operations if $500 billion in military cuts is made starting next year as part of the so-called sequestration process.
These are cuts in federal programs imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Because Congress failed to reach a deficit-reduction agreement, the cuts are automatic.
But DeThomas noted that the cuts are spread out over a decade. "We'll find a way to make it work," he said.
DeThomas said MacDill needs to start preparing its personnel for the end of the war in Afghanistan. He said 80 percent of wing personnel have joined the Air Force since the 2001 attacks.
"They've only known war," he said.
Military personnel will be faced with numerous challenges when the cycles of deployments end. He said MacDill needs to be ready with training opportunities to help in the transition.
One of the biggest impacts is financial. Troops get a pay boost when deployed of about 20 to 30 percent or higher, DeThomas said. That may include tax-free wages for deployments to combat zones.
In DeThomas' case, that meant up to $10,000 excluded from tax in 2011, when he deployed to the Middle East. For the first six months of 2012, he said, the impact to his financial bottom line was equivalent to a 40 percent pay cut.
"That impacts younger airmen just as well," he said.
Training and counseling can help with the transition, DeThomas said.
"That's important to us," he said.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.