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Sunday, April 6

Pride of Fort Bliss rides on the Patriot missile

By Charles K. Wilson | El Paso Times

In the play-by-play war of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the winners and losers have been posted daily in the nation's and world's media.

On the home front, the scorecard for Fort Bliss, Texas, is its Patriot missiles and crews, with each success credited as a validation of the base's role in the Army's air defense program and each failure marked against the missile's high-tech claims.

Yet, two early Patriot incidents in which friendly aircraft were believed hit by Patriots, and Wednesday's possible shoot-down of a Navy jet, have not pushed Fort Bliss and the missile into the loser's column. With the often quick pace of the war, and the limited loss of life in the Patriot incidents compared to other friendly fire incidents, the scorecards can change moment by moment.

Thus, the post's image and capability, built on a newer version of the missile brought into combat in Desert Storm, have been praised from El Paso to the front lines.

``(Patriot soldiers) are tip-top,'' said Navy Lt. Herb Josey, a 19-year veteran, from Central Command's headquarters in Doha, Qatar. ``They're absolutely at the top of their profession. I've seen them at their batteries (in Qatar) and seen how important they think their jobs are.''

Others said that Fort Bliss' Patriot missiles and crews will have taken a technology that was skewered by some analysts after Desert Storm in 1991 and turned it into a dependable battlefield weapon. That success, they said, will enhance Fort Bliss' already strong standing in the Army air defense program and should protect the basešs mission in the 2005 base closing and realignment hearings.

The base's stature has come from hard work, said retired Lt. Gen. Don Lionetti, a former Fort Bliss commander who is now a Lockheed Martin vice president.

``We've done quantum changes in radar, fire control and missile technology,'' Lionetti said recently from his home in Florida, where he was nursing a cold but keeping a close watch on Fort Bliss and the base's soldiers through the Internet and television. ``We'll have to wait until the analysts get finished, but my belief, when all is said and done, is the Patriot will have proved to have done very well.''

Limitations, concerns

The first days of the war were ``historic'' for Patriot crews, said Fort Bliss Chief of Staff Col. Ben Hobson, as the latest version of the Patriot, the PAC-3, knocked down Iraqi missiles. It was the first time in warfare, Hobson said, that a ``bullet-to-bullet'' missile had hit its target dead on.

The initial victories, though, gave way to two ``friendly fire'' incidents that drew questions about the missile's capabilities. After another series of successes, Patriots are being looked into as the missile that last week brought down a Navy F-18C jet fighter during combat near Karbala.

While some have criticized the missile and its technology, more effort has been made in the last 12 years to develop a 100 percent kill rate, said Steve Brecken, spokesman for Raytheon, one of the missilešs builders along with Lockheed Martin.

Unlike Desert Storm, Raytheon has technicians embedded within Patriot batteries and a classified site in Massachusetts to monitor every action, Brecken said. To date, Central Command said, Patriot batteries have hit every enemy missile they have engaged. Some enemy missiles have been allowed to fall harmlessly in the desert when radar rapidly determined they had no chance of hitting people or buildings. Officials had no overall scorecard, however.

More than missiles

The success of the Patriot is important to El Paso as well, said local officials. The post, which is older than the city, and other local military facilities employ more than 6,000 civilians and is the hub for a retirement community numbering more than 30,000.

The Army post, founded in 1848, pre-dates by 33 years the founding in 1881 of El Paso. The early post made its name by protecting American settlers from Indians and marauding bandits.

Its most famous soldier was Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing, who served there in 1914-1916. A young lieutenant, George S. Patton, served under Pershing at Fort Bliss before going on to World War II fame. Later, Gen. Omar Bradley retired to Fort Bliss.

The base's impact is substantial, said Cindy Ramos-Davidson, chief executive officer of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. ``It goes beyond the base to the things that they buy: clothes, shoes, gas, food. They have families, their children go to school here and the kids come back and stay here and own, run and manage businesses. The economic impact is quite significant.''

The city does not just take from the base, though. After the 507th Maintenance Company was ambushed on March 23, the community (already flying U.S. flags on their cars, building ``hero walls'' to give to the base, and donating time and money to support spouses and children left behind) rallied even more. Yellow ribbons now flutter from poles and homes throughout the city, and spell out ``We Support Our Troops'' at Kohlberg Elementary School in the Upper Valley.

``(Fort Bliss') roots in the community are really, really much larger than what they are at face value,'' said Dennis Soden, executive director of the Institute for Policy and Economic Development at the University of Texas at El Paso. Soden said one in six of the city's economic dollars and one in nine of the city's income dollars are generated by Fort Bliss. ``These are our neighbors who are over there (in Iraq),'' he said, ``not just some guy from another community.''

The crucial element for the future of Fort Bliss, which has more than 4,000 soldiers deployed in Iraq, will be military needs and established infrastructure, Lionetti said. ``The future of Fort Bliss is as strong as it's ever been. It's here to stay,'' he said. ``It's got a bright future.''