Monterey Roots Provide Panetta Broad Perspective on Defense Community Issues
If confirmed by the Senate to be the next secretary of defense, Leon Panetta will bring the unique outlook of a public official who has focused on a variety of issues affecting defense communities, including BRAC redevelopment, growth and mission support, to the post.
As a native of Monterey who represented the Central Coast of California for 16 years in the U.S. Congress, Panetta, now director of the CIA, was both a witness and forceful leader in multiple efforts that supported the region’s military presence.
“From his sensitivity to the economic, social and infrastructure impacts of closure and realignment to the importance of assisting military families with quality schools and medical care, Leon has manifest extraordinary support for military community issues,” said Michael Houlemard Jr., past president of ADC and executive officer of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority.
Perhaps Panetta’s highest-profile involvement with defense community issues — due to the magnitude of the circumstances — was the role he assumed helping the Monterey region respond to the closure of Fort Ord stemming from the 1991 round of BRAC.
In the months following the news about Fort Ord’s imminent closure, the then-congressman organized an informal effort to bring together leaders from throughout the Monterey region to contemplate new uses for the installation. That task force produced a series of recommendations that still guide the installation’s reuse, Houlemard said, including an emphasis on economic redevelopment, environmental conservation and education.
One of the most critical recommendations that came out of that task force’s work was one calling for the creation of an entity that could broadly represent the region. That recommendation led to the formation of a reuse group that was a precursor to the current Fort Ord Reuse Authority.
“He believed in communities,” Houlemard said.
Prior to Ord’s closure, then-Rep. Panetta was intimately involved with a range of issues defense communities grapple with as they try to support their local installations. One of the most tragic for the Monterey area was the 1984 suicide of a teenager who lived in Army housing with his family. The suicide, which was linked to the cramped quarters the family lived in, prompted a great deal of soul-searching among the military and its host community alike.
The subsequent attempt to upgrade the conditions of the Army housing led to the idea of having the private sector finance the improvements. Panetta helped shepherd the concept through Washington, obtaining authority for the Army to go ahead with the plan. And within a year, the community successfully developed DOD’s first privatized family housing, an early predecessor of the Army’s Residential Communities Initiative.
The effort was hardly the only time Panetta was involved in military-community issues, but it certainly demonstrated his understanding of the pressures that military families face, whether they are deployed or at home.
“He truly understands the partnerships and synergies that exist between communities, regions and states, and their military installations,” said Fred Meurer, the city manager of Monterey and a past president of ADC.
Since leaving Congress in 1993, Panetta has continued to supported Monterey’s other installations — the Presidio of Monterey and Naval Postgraduate School. He testified before the BRAC Commission in 2005.
“You couldn’t ask for a single individual that has more experience and background with the issues that matter to defense communities,” Meurer said.