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Military salutes Ellington renewal- $100 million incarnation to be key training base

In its 93-year history, Houston's Ellington Field has survived one planned closure after another.

"It's like the phoenix," said local historian Kathryn Black Morrow. "It keeps rising from the ashes. And it's done it again, by golly."

Ellington is in the midst of the largest construction project the former World War I military base has seen in more than three decades.

The $100 million venture represents a resurrection of sorts for Ellington, which bounced back from the loss of its fighter jet fleet five years ago to emerge as a high-tech base where Army, Navy and Marine Reserve units, along with Army and Air National Guard, train and drill for deployments overseas.

The project is going to result in a few extra thousand military personnel and a rare distinction: Ellington will have all of the nation's armed forces represented in one base.

The military side of Ellington's mixed-use airport is even getting a new name: Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base.

"It's almost like a rebirth," said Command Sgt. Maj. Paul Belanger, of the 75th Battle Command Training Division, an Army reserve unit headquartered at Ellington, a base that has weathered three total closures and four partial closures through the years.

"Ellington has been around for a long time," Belanger said. "As a soldier, it would've been a shame to see it go away completely, and with the influx of reserve and National Guard, it's going to continue bringing jobs to the community."

Cutting-edge facilities
The multiphase project began in 2006 when crews broke ground for a 173,000-square-foot Armed Forces Reserve Center, said Lt. Col. Jon Elliott, deputy division engineer for the 75th.

Phase II is scheduled for completion in January, with the opening of an entry control point, welcome center, vehicle maintenance facilities, storage structures, a second Armed Forces Reserve Center, and a 40,000-square-foot Battle Command Training Center, Elliott said.

The cutting-edge training center will feature the latest war simulation software, allowing Reserve and Guard troops to train in a virtual environment using technology similar to video games such as Call of Duty or Medal of Honor to re-create the streets of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan. The center's classrooms can be configured to look like tactical operations centers in the war zone so commanders and their staff can work through worst-case scenarios on the same computer systems they'll use to track live reports from the battlefield in Bagram or Baghdad.

"It helps minimize the learning curve once you get where you're going to go," said Maj. Tuan Nguyen of the 75th.

Once all the military units move into the expanded complex — including a new Coast Guard headquarters scheduled for completion by 2012 - the number of troops stationed at Ellington will jump from about 1,500 three years ago to more than 6,000, said John Martinec, chairman and director of Ellington Field Task Force, a group of civilians, industry leaders and officials that champions Ellington's strategic and economic importance to the Gulf Coast.

'An excellent direction'
Formed through the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, task force members lobbied and testified against the Base Realignment and Closure Commission's decision to retire Ellington's aging F-16 fighter jets.

Ellington lost the jets in 2005 but gained Navy, Army and Marine Corps Reserve units. And the former fighter pilots and crews of the Air Guard wing stationed at Ellington got a new mission: They now fly unmanned Predator drones in Iraq and Afghanistan, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

"We're extremely proud that we're building the military back up there, and it's heading in a very good direction, an excellent direction," Martinec said.

Task force members have developed a long-term plan for Ellington that includes a commissary and post exchange store, as well as on-site lodging, an indoor shooting range, medical clinic, physical fitness facility and veteran services center. Those projects have yet to be funded, but Martinec says the task force is working with lawmakers to make the vision a reality.

"We've come a long way, and we're not finished yet," he said.