Communities Bid Guard Armories Farewell

New Castle, Ind., Mayor Jim Small was stunned by the announcement in May that the Indiana National Guard would close its armory in his town of about 18,000 after having a presence there since 1938.

"They've gone to war from there, and they've been here when the community needed help," he said. "It's sad. We're a very patriotic community, and this hurts."

The closing of the small, aging facility and many like it across the USA is the result of shifting demographics, tight state budgets and changes in the way America's citizen soldiers are being trained and deployed, says Sgt. Katherine Perez, a National Guard public affairs officer.

More than 100 armories nationwide have closed or been targeted for closing in the past five years — many in smaller communities — and more are closing this year, USA TODAY research found. Some are being replaced by larger joint Army National Guard, Army Reserve and Air National Guard Readiness Centers.

In Indiana, two additional armories — in Delphi and Tell City— will close by year's end. Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger, adjutant general of the Indiana National Guard, said the state unit is building two Readiness Centers in the Indianapolis area.

Among other state plans:

• In Kansas, 18 of 56 armories will close this year. A Readiness Center is planned for Wichita in 2011.

• Oklahoma has closed 40 since 2006 and plans to close at least 10 more over the next two years. It has seven Readiness Centers under construction.

• Oregon plans to shut down two by the end of 2011 and is building one Readiness Center.

• Louisiana is closing four and building two Readiness Centers.

• New York has closed or announced plans to close 11. It has built one Readiness Center, has a second under construction and is looking for a site for a third.

"As great as those armories have been and as hard as it is to leave those communities, it just doesn't make sense to keep them open," said Sgt. Leslie Newport, spokesman for the Indiana National Guard. "Its more than cost-cutting. We are doing a layer of teaching that is above what we have had."

The closings come as the Army and Air National Guard combined report membership is up — from 459,000 in 2000 to 470,000 in 2009.

Some armories close because of a lack of state and federal funds for maintenance and utilities, Perez says. Others have closed as a result of changing population trends where, she said, "towns no longer support units."

Still others have closed as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program, which funded construction of some of the joint Readiness Centers, says Hallet Brazelton Jr., deputy in the National Guard Bureau's Installation Division.

Readiness Centers, like the armories, are managed within each state. The states make decisions about construction and location, Brazelton said. The number of Readiness Centers varies as new facilities are constructed and old ones are disposed of, Brazelton says. Over the past 10 years, he says, the total number has stayed close to 3,000.

That doesn't ease the sting for Small, or for Barb Bartell, finance officer for the town of Lemmon, S.D., a ranching community of about 1,400 where the armory closed last year.

Bartell said the loss of the armory is another hit to a town dealing with tough economic times. She said it's not only the impact on the town's psyche that is troublesome.

"The Guard members that live around here now have to drive almost 200 miles for training," she said. "And as far as getting help from the Guard, which used to be right out the back door, now they're a long way away."

Not all states are closing armories. The Nevada National Guard has no plans to close armories and is in a growth mode, said spokesman Sgt. 1st Class Eric Studenicka. California National Guard spokesman Sgt. Jon Guibord said no closures have been considered.

Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, adjutant general of the Kansas National Guard, said the closing of 18 armories in the state this year came after an extensive review. "We would much prefer building armories to closing them, but it's a sign of the times," Bunting explained. "These were hard decisions."

Evans reports for The Indianapolis Star. Contributing: Matthew Daneman, Rochester (N.Y.)Democrat and Chronicle; Jeff Delong, Reno Gazette-Journal; Katharine Lackey, The (Staunton, Va.) News Leader; Sherry Shepard, The (Shreveport, La.) Times; Keith Matheny, The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun; Jeff Martin, Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, S.D.); Tracy Loew, Statesman Journal (Salem, Ore.)