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A Goodbye Mission

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

HOWARD AIR FORCE BASE, Canal Zone, July 29, 1999 – Big yellow "X's" crisscross the runway, warning pilots away. The air traffic control tower across the runway is empty, as is the row of hangars that grew up with American air power and with the military mission surrounding the Panama Canal since 1917.

The last of the fixed-wing U.S. aircraft departed Howard Air Force Base May 1. Scores of support and tenant missions have moved on as well, including DoD counterdrug operations, which relocated to forward operating locations in Ecuador and Curacao.

Control of the canal will change hands Dec. 31, 1999, from the United States to Panama. DoD elements began drawing down more than a year ago in anticipation of the deadline, established by the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977.

When the U.S. Army-South lowers the flag at Fort Clayton July 30 and moves its operations to Puerto Rico, the less than 600 airmen remaining on Howard will represent the final military element of U.S. jurisdiction over the canal. By Nov. 1, they, too, will be gone; the mission ended; the 24th Wing here, inactivated.

To help 24th Wing Commander Col. Roger Corbin oversee Howard's - - and the wing's -- final months, the Air Force sent Col. Cliff Sjolund here from Minot Air Force Base, N.D. With past experience at closing bases (Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, for example), the new vice wing commander said he understands the challenge.

"We needed to develop a plan that caused the least amount of turmoil for our service members and families as well as for the Panamanian employees who will lose their jobs when Howard closes," he said. "For the most part, we did that."

Units have curtailed missions. People have gone home, including family members of those who yet remain here. The last of the dependents have to be out by Aug. 1. Airmen and officers have moved back on base and share vacated family quarters. Soon, they will occupy dormitories instead as Howard's perimeter tightens and draws them into a core of buildings at the very center of the base.

Already, you see signs of the final draw down. Cardboard boxes have replaced file cabinets. Tables have replaced desks. Even the commander's winged-back chairs have packing slips attached to them and will soon join the rest of the furniture and supplies being crated for delivery aboard ships to new locations.

"Items we don't need but that still have value we've made available to other units," Sjolund said. This includes relatively new gym lockers that could have been turned over to Panama and an airfield security control facility somebody somewhere said they could use. The rest, mostly infrastructure, just has to be kept up until it's handed over to Panama.

"We took a 'snapshot' of the base May 1, and our requirement is to make sure the facilities are in the same shape when we turn them over to Panama Nov. 1," the colonel said. "We are doing that and will provide the Panamanians a very nice piece of property."

The property is being maintained, units are drawing down and service members and their families are getting orders to new assignments. What worries Sjolund, however, is the fate of the approximately 700 Panamanian civilians employed at Howard.

"Seventy percent of our civilian employees will be looking for work on an economy with high unemployment and low wages," Sjolund said. "That concerns us a great deal."

Job fairs the base has sponsored have helped some of the Panamanians find new jobs, and some others with U.S. citizenship have seniority and transfer rights within the U.S. civil service. But most need help not promised in the treaty.

"We've sponsored workshops to teach them how to write resumes, prepare for interviews or even manage small businesses," the colonel said. "They've been loyal employees and deserve all the help we can offer them."

The government of Panama has already benefited from the closure of military facilities here. The former Albrook Air Force Station is now the country's largest municipal airport, while the housing there has been sold to individual buyers. On July 29, a contractor hired by the Panamanian government takes over the Howard golf course, and he suspects the housing and airfield facilities will easily attract new owners.

The golf course turnover, however, is another indicator of the final days for Howard. Other signs include understocked commissary shelves -- "It's just the staples they carry, now," Sjolund said -- and the pending closure of the pizza and ice cream concessions run by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.

There's just one chaplain now, and soon the banks will close. The AAFES Shoppette will cash checks for the remaining few after most of the troops have departed by Sept. 30.

Corbin and Sjorlund will remain, as will a few of the security forces, some medics and a couple of services specialists to make sure the last 15 or so remaining are taken care of and fed. Then, it will be over, and Corbin and Sjolund most likely will be the last Americans out the Howard gate.

In 1917, the Army sent Capt. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, the future Army Air Forces commander, here to organize the 7th Aero Squadron. That was the beginning of U.S. air power in the region and represented one of only two American squadrons deployed overseas. Eighty-two years later, Howard Air Force Base is poised to join Arnold in the annals of military history.

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