It could have been the end for Fort Indiantown Gap – and, by association, the local economy of Union Township and surrounding Lebanon County could have suffered a major setback.
But the closure of the military base that seemed imminent in 1995 was forestalled when, rather than closing the U.S. Army base entirely, it was transferred instead to the Pennsylvania National Guard.
In 1995, the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission, a branch of the Department of Defense, decided to close FTIG as an active-duty Army base. But, rather than shut down the facility entirely, it was repurposed in October 1998.
“The commission decided to remove the active-duty Army units and transfer the installation from federal to state control in 1998 for use as a reserve component training site,” Brad Rhen, deputy state public affairs officer for the base, wrote in an article on the 25th anniversary of the transfer. “Instead of languishing,” he said, “numerous new facilities and ranges have been built over the past 25 years, and Fort Indiantown Gap is now one of the nation’s premier National Guard training centers.”
Army Col. Kevin Potts, Fort Indiantown Gap’s garrison commander, told Rhen: “Fort Indiantown Gap has definitely come a long way in the last 25 years. It’s gone from a somewhat sleepy installation with a small active-duty contingent to being one of the busiest National Guard training centers in the country with numerous modern ranges and state-of-the-art training facilities.”
And that transformation has had a significant impact on the local community.
“Fort Indiantown Gap is the largest employer in Lebanon County, steadily employing over 2,000 people and hosting up to 9,000 personnel on weekends,” Karen Groh, president and CEO of the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce, told LebTown.
“This has a great impact on our community as these are skilled positions with a good income and benefits – providing an economic impact in hundreds of millions in labor income,” Groh said. “This trickles into our local economy in services, housing, food, and more.”
A hive of activity
Wayne V. Hall, state public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania National Guard, told LebTown that, currently, “more than 2,000 personnel” work at Fort Indiantown Gap. That number, he said, “includes state and federal civilian employees, military personnel and contractors.”
That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of people who are trained there, Hall said.
“More than 100,000 people train at Fort Indiantown Gap annually including active-duty and reserve component personnel from all branches of the military; personnel from local, state and federal agencies; and law-enforcement personnel,” he said. “They come from all over the country.”
They keep very active there, Hall said.
According to a LebTown report in 2021, the National Guard operates 48 training centers across the continental United States and Puerto Rico. “Every year,” Hall said, “Fort Indiantown Gap, covering some 17,000 acres of real estate, is among the busiest National Guard training centers in the country. FTIG was the busiest overall training center in 2015, 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2021 and has been in the top three every year since 2013.”
- Once again, The Gap is the nation’s largest National Guard training center by training volume
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FTIG’s Muir Army Heliport, Hall noted, “is the second-busiest heliport in the U.S. Army, behind only Fort Novosel (formerly Fort Rucker), Alabama, which is home to the U.S. Army aviation school.”
The heliport, which was built in the 1930s as Muir Army Airfield, was renamed earlier this year. According to a FTIG release in July, the airfield “did not meet guidelines required for that title set by the Army and the Federal Aviation Administration” and was redesignated to “allow for better safety compliance and allow the heliport to maintain its heavy traffic flow.”
According to the release, the area was deemed unsuitable “for fixed wing aircraft, like planes, to be stored there due to the proximity of surrounding buildings, terrain and training areas.”
A brief history
According to Rhen, Fort Indiantown Gap’s history dates back more than 90 years. The Pennsylvania National Guard had outgrown its training site at Mount Gretna, in southern Lebanon County, and began buying land for a new training site in northern Lebanon and Dauphin counties in 1931. The first exercises were held there in 1932, although what was then known as Indiantown Gap Military Reservation wasn’t completed until 1940.
With U.S. participation in World War II on the horizon, the federal government leased the reservation from Pennsylvania on Sept. 30, 1940, for use as a training facility. “A massive construction project got underway, as 13,000 workers quickly constructed more than 1,400 buildings, including barracks, mess halls, fire stations, chapels, theaters, a sports arena and a 400-bed hospital,” Rhen explained in his article. It served as one of the nation’s busiest Army training camps during the war, he noted, with more than 150,000 troops in eight divisions receiving training there before shipping overseas. After the war, more than 450,000 soldiers returning home were demobilized at the Lebanon County site before returning to civilian life.
Although the facility was returned to the state’s control after World War II, the feds used it again from 1951 to 1953, training 32,000 troops in the 5th Infantry Division for service in Korea. Later, Rhen wrote, “activity at Fort Indiantown Gap remained relatively steady over the next 40 years.” In the 1960s and ’70s, he added, “Fort Indiantown Gap served as the Army’s largest Reserve Officer Training Corps summer camp, providing training for future officers.” It also served twice as a refugee resettlement camp – first in 1975, for more than 20,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, and again in 1980, for more than 19,000 Cuban refugees.
But, as the military preparedness of the Cold War era wound down, so too did the number of Army bases. “The Base Realignment and Closure Commission was established to study U.S. military installations and recommend closing them or realigning them with other bases,” Rhen explained. Although there was some discussion of transferring the base to the reserves, he said, many people worried the base would simply be shut down for good.
In 1995, the BRAC Commission issued its decision and, on Oct. 1, 1998, the federal U.S. Army Garrison relinquished its hold on the site. Control of the facility was ceded back to the Pennsylvania National Guard.
Immediately, the Guard began physical improvements to the base infrastructure, from roof replacements to the elimination of duplicate services.
A soldier stationed there in the mid-1990s might not recognize the base today, Hall told LebTown.
“Some of the major additions over the past 25 years include the 166th Regiment Regional Training Institute, a U.S. Army schoolhouse that offers classroom and field training in numerous career fields; the Mission Training Complex, which hosts brigade and division War Fighter Exercises and provides individual and collective training to Army National Guard units; the Aircraft Maintenance Instructional Building, a state-of-the art facility that provides training for Army helicopter maintainers; the Training Support Center, a 63,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2021, consolidating the operations previously located in six World War II-era buildings into one state-of-the-art facility; and the Army Reserve Center, which provides training in maintenance military occupational specialties to U.S. Army Reserve personnel,” he said.
Keeping it open
Matthew Urban, chief of staff for state Senator Chris Gebhard (R-48th), noted in an email to LebTown that the base faced obsolescence because, after the Cold War, the U.S. was seeking “to realize savings in its defense budget.”
“Fort Indiantown Gap was one of the many bases that came under scrutiny during this period,” Urban said. But, he added, “a few factors played a role in saving Fort Indiantown Gap from closure.”
According to information provided by Urban, those factors included:
- Local Advocacy: Local communities, politicians, and other stakeholders lobbied to keep the base open due to its economic impact on the region. The potential loss of jobs and economic activity was a significant concern.
- Strategic Value: Fort Indiantown Gap’s role as a premier National Guard training site highlighted its value to the military. The facility had unique training environments and capabilities that were deemed essential for various military operations. (Particularly the helicopter airfield.)
- Transition to State Control: A significant portion of Fort Indiantown Gap transitioned to state control, becoming the primary training area for the Pennsylvania National Guard. This state-level focus ensured its continued use and relevance. The commonwealth invested heavily in modernizing the base by updating the barracks and training facilities.
- Diversification of Use: Over the years, the base adapted to a variety of uses beyond traditional military training. This includes serving as a refuge center for evacuees during natural disasters, among other roles.
“Together, these factors, combined with strong local and political support, ensured that Fort Indiantown Gap remained open and operational during a period of significant military downsizing,” Urban said. He noted that, according to records held by the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, letters in support of keeping the base open were sent to the committee by elected officials including Senator Arlen Specter, Senator Harris Wofford, Congressman George Gekas, Congressman Robert Walker, Governor Bob Casey, and state Senator David J. Brightbill.
Senator Gebhard has high praise for the state of the facility 25 years after it came so close to closing.
“Since the DMVA has officially taken over operations at (FTIG) in 1998, they have done an amazing job at making it one of the premier military facilities in the county,” Gebhard said. “The Pennsylvania National Guard hosted training for over 110,000 troops from all over the world last year and is consistently ranked as one of the busiest military training centers in the United States. From providing humanitarian assistance at home to supporting military operations throughout the world, the Pennsylvania National Guard has been an invaluable resource for citizens of our Commonwealth.
“Additionally, the impact on Lebanon County’s economy can not be understated. It has certainly become a large factor for the small businesses in the northern section of the county. With over 2,000 employees in both the military and civilian sector, the Gap has become an integral part of the region’s economic vitality.”
A boon to the local economy
Hall said FTIG has some key factors working in its favor, among them its presence here in Lebanon County.
“Size-wise, Fort Indiantown Gap is actually smaller than several other National Guard training centers, and many of its facilities are similar to those at other installation,” he explained.
“What sets it apart (is) its location: it is the only level two National Guard training center in the northeast U.S., meaning it has billeting for a brigade, maneuver acreage for a company-plus, individual and crew-served weapons ranges, and squad and team collective ranges,” Hall added. “Our Range Operations employees will also tell you that their customer service is top notch.”
And, in the wake of the Army’s departure, Hall said, FTIG has thrived.
“One the major reasons Fort Indiantown Gap has thrived is the Pennsylvania National Guard’s commitment to continually upgrading the installation’s facilities and ranges,” he said. “We are always looking for ways to add to the quality training offered here.”
He agreed with Groh that the base has had a major impact on the local economy.
“It is one of, if not the biggest employer in Lebanon County, providing over 2,000 well paying full-time jobs,” Hall said. “Fort Indiantown Gap has a pretty significant impact on the local economy.”
Besides the obvious benefit of the steady jobs, he said, “the 100,000-plus personnel who come here to train annually often patronize local businesses.”
Otherwise, Hall noted, “Fort Indiantown Gap’s Bureau of Environmental Management strives to improve the installation’s natural environment. The section manages issues ranging from endangered species to cultural resources to hazardous waste.”
In recent years, he said, the bureau “has planted over 55,000 trees” within the installation.
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