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Military nerve center gets more secure home

Since 1997, behind the doors of an office suite at Kennedy and West Shore boulevards, more than 30 workers have toiled away, establishing communications between war commanders here and their troops on the other side of the world.

On Tuesday, five years after they set up shop in the office suite, Army officials cut the ceremonial ribbon marking the grand opening of a new building on MacDill Air Force Base to house these satellite communications gurus.

Beginning next month, staffers of the Regional SATCOM Support Center will work out of a 5,500-square-foot building at MacDill. That will put them near Central Command and Special Operations, two groups that rely heavily on their services.

The facility is one of three around the world run by the U.S. Army Space Command to service the Army, Navy and Air Force. The others are in Germany and Hawaii.

Plans to relocate have been in the works for a few years, said Brig. Gen. Richard V. Geraci, who serves as deputy commanding general for operations for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. Sept. 11 underscored the need for more protection for this vital military function, he said.

"When you have any type of military activity like this is, we prefer to have it on a military facility," Geraci said. "We now have a state-of-the-art facility to work from."

While at the Prudential building off of West Shore, the SATCOM staff kept a low profile. The marquee in the lobby listed Regional SATCOM Support Center on the fifth floor, but the name didn't reveal much.

Officials were careful not to reveal much more when they described the center's operations Tuesday.

Essentially, any time someone needs to establish communications, whether via phone lines or satellite radios, they contact SATCOM support, said Wilson Small, the center's director.

SATCOM personnel are responsible for finding an available satellite in orbit, arranging for its use and instructing troops where to place their antennas.

With the use of fiber optics, they can pass along information in real time.

In addition to serving CENTCOM and Special Ops, they also assist the Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., and Southern Command in Miami.

"If we don't do our job, lives are at stake," said Army Master Sgt. Tony Harp. "People could die."