BY MARTIN DAKS, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
SPANNING 42,000 CONTIGUOUS acres across Burlington and Ocean counties, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (JB MDL) is the nation’s only tri-service joint base—home to active-duty, Reserve and National Guard service members from the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy and the Coast Guard. With more than a $6.9 billion economic impact in the region, the base is the largest employer in New Jersey after the state government, employing more than 65,000 people.
The Commander of JB MDL, Colonel Neil R. Richardson of the 87th Air Base Wing, has served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and spoke with COMMERCE about the challenges of running JB MDL’s day-to-day operations; the role of the facility in New Jersey and the United States; and the future of the base.
COMMERCE: What’s your role as commander of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst? COL. NEIL R. RICHARDSON: In a sense, I’m sort of the mayor. My job is to ensure that the base continues to run efficiently. Working with many talented people, I’m responsible for the base’s infrastructure, people and assets.
Q. How long have you been at JB MDL?
A. I’ve been in the military for 24 years, with about 18 different postings; I’ve served here for about 25 months. The military does a phenomenal job of preparing people to work together, take responsibility and assume leadership roles.
Q. What’s unique about the base?
A. JB MDL is the Department of Defense’s first joint base and is the only joint base that consolidates Air Force, Army and Navy installations. The current configuration, as JB MDL, was formed in 2009. This came about as a result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which recommended combining the former Fort Dix [which was established in 1917 as a training and staging location for the heavy troop requirements of World War I]; Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst; and McGuire Air Force Base as JB MDL. This year, we’ll be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the successful combination, holding several events in honor of the Decennial. For the 87th Air Base Wing, there will also be a Dining Out with our first Joint Base commander, Lt. Gen. (ret) Gina Grosso as the keynote speaker.
Q. What are the key local and national roles and responsibilities of JB MDL?
A. The local impact comprises the more than 60,000 direct and indirect jobs we support, and more than $6.9 billion of funding that we generate for the region. Our national strategic responsibilities can be described as a three-part mission. One part is the McGuire host unit, which extends the nation’s global reach by generating and rapidly mobilizing and deploying aircraft to conduct strategic airlift and air refueling missions across the United States—including aiding in FEMA disaster response—and worldwide. The Fort Dix component trains and educates up to 250,000 soldiers and airmen each year and, since 1994, has hosted the Air Mobility Warfare Center. Fort Dix also provides training areas for Reserve and National Guard soldiers.
Lakehurst is an important Naval R&D center, supporting and developing the Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment and Support Equipment for naval aviation. Key projects include the development of an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch system and an Advanced Arresting Gear system that will replace the existing steam catapults and the Mk-7 arresting gear currently used on aircraft carriers.
Q. What’s an average day like on the base?
A. No day is “average.” We continually run multiple missions across Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and Coast Guard units, with equipment that includes F-35 aircraft and Huey helicopters. Thousands of soldiers a day are also being trained with weaponry ranging from 9mm guns to 150 mm howitzers.
Our base also hosts the nation’s Air Force Contingency Response Wing—the wing also has units at Travis Air Force Base, California—which aids in hurricane and other natural disasters, as well as transporting military advisers to our global allies. On any given day, instructors at our base are also providing pre-deployment training for missions key to national security [in 1990, then-Fort Dix prepared service members for Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield] with simulation centers, demolition ranges, artillery ranges, obstacle courses, leadership reaction courses, land navigation ranges, combined arms fire and other capabilities.
As the Joint Base Commander, I have two deputies that aid in the daily business of running the base. An Army colonel and Navy captain fill those roles while also serving as commanders for the Army and Navy Support Activities on the installation. The JB MDL leadership team focuses on mission support for the 88 mission partners to include housing; fire and medical; security; infrastructure support and morale; welfare; and recreation for the 50,000-plus population.
Q. How has technology changed the role of the military?
A. Technology has played a huge role in the way we accomplish our mission, but our core focus continues to be training individuals. Technology helps them to do their job better, but the individual is at the heart of our activities.
Q. What are some challenges that military families face? How does the base help them?
A. Military personnel move an average of every three-to-four years—base commanders are shifted every two years on average—and it takes a lot out of the family. A non-military spouse may have their career interrupted or disrupted because of the frequent moves, and a spouse with a professional license, like a teacher, attorney or CPA may have to re-certify their license in a new state. Base leaders are working with state officials to try to have their licenses and certificates recognized across state lines when the move is required by the military, but we’re not there yet. We’re also trying to arrange for educational institutions to offer them in-state tuition as they move across the country. We have on-base facilities that offer primary medical care for military families, and we have partnerships with off-base facilities in New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania. We also have arrangements with some local educational and medical facilities that enable our base’s medical staff to engage in continuing education.
Q. How did you prepare for this assignment at JB MDL?
A. As a joint base commander, you have to quickly learn about the culture and priorities of other services. I spent the first couple of months of my command tour getting to know the other service commanders, their people and their missions. Each month we also hold a meeting in which all of the key leaders from across the base attend to discuss priorities and how we can better support those who live and work on the base. This is probably the hardest but most fulfilling job I’ve ever had. It’s given me a better appreciation for and understanding of the other services, and I feel that I’ve grown closer to other military personnel as a result. We’ve seen a lot of changes in the military—for example the nation’s Air Force had about 600,000 members when I joined almost a quarter-century ago, and now we’re down to about 328,000. So, we’re all a little bit busier, but our capable leadership, including General David Goldfein and Secretary Heather Wilson, is helping us to operate even more effectively.
Q. What’s ahead for the base?
In 2021, we’re scheduled to receive the new KC-46 tanker, which is built on a Boeing 767 borne refueling capabilities, the model will provide updated command-and-control capabilities; and parts and maintenance will be easier since it’s based on the widely used 767 airframe. To accommodate this larger tanker, we’ll be changing the configuration of our fueling and other facilities, and we’ll add a new hangar. We’re expecting about $146 million of new construction costs beginning in 2019, which should also generate quite a few new jobs.
Q. Where are you from originally, and how has your family adjusted to New Jersey?
A. I’m originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and my wife, Melissa, and I have two boys and two girls, aged 10 to 21. My kids are resilient and are used to moving around. The fact that we’re in a somewhat rural part of New Jersey is nice, because it reminds us a bit of our neighborhood in New Mexico. But back there, no one ever experienced a traffic jam.