By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
FORT HOOD – Local legislators invited colleagues to their backyard Friday as about 30 lawmakers from Austin visited Fort Hood.
Jimmie Don Aycock, who represents District 54, and Ralph Sheffield, District 55, led a delegation of politicians, staff members and families to get a better idea of Fort Hood and how it impacts the state. District 54 covers Lampasas, Burnet and Bell counties and District 55 covers part of Bell County.
"You will indeed experience Fort Hood," said Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, III Corps and Fort Hood commander, before the group embarked on its day.
Participants got an overhead view of Fort Hood via 1st Cavalry Division Black Hawks, and visited several sites, including a mock Iraqi village to watch soldiers react to bombs and insurgent attacks and the Oveta Culp Hobby Soldier and Family Readiness Center.
But first it was all about business. Lynch addressed several issues the post is facing, including what he calls "substandard housing." Ten percent of soldiers and families live in homes with asbestos, lead paint and electrical hazards, he said, and current plans call for that housing to be in place until 2032.
"That's unacceptable," Fort Hood's top commander said.
It will cost $174 million to fix those problems and Lynch said he was on a campaign to get that money "because our soldiers deserve more."
Money is also an issue when examining another major need at Fort Hood –
health care. Multiple combat deployments are taking a toll on soldiers and their families, Lynch said. A soldier can't be exposed to those situations and come back without a significant emotional impact, he added.
The general asked to be personally informed whenever there is a motorcycle accident and suicide ideation, attempt or success. His cell phone rings at least five times a day, he told the crowd. About 500 Fort Hood soldiers were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and/or mild traumatic brain injuries, and those are just those diagnosed, Lynch said.
"So we need some help," he added. "Significant help."
Fort Hood has only 77 percent of the mental health professionals it needs, including psychologists and psychiatrists; 80 percent of the overall health care professionals it needs, and facilities are antiquated.
A planned 86,000-square-foot behavioral health center has a price tag of $46 million, Lynch said. He said later that he invited the lawmakers, whom he earlier called "spheres of influence," to Fort Hood because "vision without resources is hallucination."
Sheffield said many of the legislators were new like him, and this was their first visit to Fort Hood. It was a chance for them to grasp how large the installation is and the impact it has not only on Central Texas, but also the state.
"We've got to pay attention to what goes on here," he said.
Fort Hood contributes more than $10.9 billion to the state of Texas, Aycock said.
Texas Comptroller Susan Combs announced those numbers and the post's growing impact on the state economy during a May 2008 visit. The $10.9 billion figure is the indirect impact Fort Hood has, and $4.4 billion is the direct impact. That is a 45.8 percent and 78.3 percent increase from 2004, the last time those numbers were examined, according to a May Herald report.
But the relationship isn't just about numbers, Aycock emphasized. The soldiers and their families are friends and neighbors.
Central Texans agonize with them when soldiers go to war and celebrate with them when they come back, he said.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7547.
For more on this story, including Rep. Ralph Sheffield's take on the Texas lawmakers' visit to Fort Hood, read Wednesday's Fort Hood Herald.