More In Lifestyle
By Joe Rutherford
Tupelo’s Army Aviation Support Facility may be in for big changes if a decision made by top military commanders earlier this month to shift all AH-64 Apache attack helicopters from the National Guard to the active U.S. Army takes place.
After what was described as intense internal debate, the U.S. National Guard Bureau chief, Army Gen. Frank Grass, gave his public signoff to the U.S. Army’s plan to move all of the Guard’s Apache helicopters into the active force and receive several hundred Black Hawk and Lakota multi-use helicopters in return.
Grass admitted in statements at an April 8 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that he would back the plan and implement it because the decision had been made by his superiors, but the issue has not gone quiet.
However, the order can’t be implemented until Congress authorizes it in the appropriations process for 2015, and significant opposition already exists.
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a Tupelo resident, was among members of Congress who expressed concerns about the decision and its long-term impact.
In a statement to the Armed Services Committee about the Army’s planned modernization in the face of financial limitations, Wicker said he has “major reservations” about the Apache transfers.
Wicker, whose efforts were largely responsible over the span of a decade in bringing the $30 million Army Aviation Support Facility to the campus of Tupelo Regional Airport, said the Apaches have “performed superbly” under Guard command.
He said the Apaches enhance the National Guard’s ability to fight on short notice. Ten states, he said in his remarks, would be affected by the mass transfer to the active Army. Tupelo is the only Mississippi unit with Apaches.
Tim Powell, the communications chief for the Mississippi National Guard, said 14 Apaches are based in Tupelo, plus numerous Black Hawks and UH-72s (Lakotas). The Apaches operate under the 1-149th Aviation Battalion, and its last deployment was to Iraq from August 2006 to July 2007. At that time, it was known as Troop E, 104th Cavalry Regiment. It has not deployed as a unit to Afghanistan, but over the years, individual soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.
The 834th Support unit also is involved.
Powell said 63 people work fulltime at the Tupelo facility, 85 people are in the Apache command and 62 people in the support group. Most of the personnel are not full time.
A spokesman for Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said Cochran wants to discuss the issue with Mississippi Adj. Gen. Augustus Collins. Chris Gallegos, Cochran’s communications director, said the senator is on record as having significant concerns about anything that would weaken the National Guard, and he noted that the generals’ decision must be authorized by Congress.
Powell also noted that until Congress authorizes the plan, it is a proposal and not a fact.
“Until it is actually placed in an authorization that passes in the 2015 budget, it can’t happen,” Powell said.
Powell said the situation is considered “very fluid” and is being watched closely.
“We know that our congressional delegation is fighting for us,” Powell said.
Wicker said he has doubts about the attainability of the $12 billion in savings over a period of years cited by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno.
Maj. Derek J. Holland, commander of AASF in Tupelo, was on an official mission Wednesday and not available for comment, secretary to the commander Janet McCarver said.
Several other members of Congress also expressed concern, media sources reported.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was sharply critical, saying after the hearing that taking away its Apaches “is a huge change. The Guard has been a combat arms reserve force, and by taking the attack helicopters out of the card, they have no more combat mission in aviation.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., meanwhile, expressed concern for the morale if Apache pilots and other personnel who had served for years were told they “aren’t needed any more.”
By Joe Rutherford
Weather conditions hold the key to the remaining time required to complete the final 10-mile segment of what is commonly referred to as new Highway 6.
U.S. 278/SR 6 – its official name – from U.S. 45 in Tupelo to SR 342 in Pontotoc County, is projected to open in mid-June, Mississippi Department of Transportation officials said Monday.
The almost-finished ribbon of pavement will provide an uninterrupted four-lane link from U.S. 45 in Tupelo to Interstate 55 in Batesville, via Pontotoc and Oxford
District Engineer Mark Holley said a portion of the segment lacks its final layer of asphalt, signage, striping, some shoulder work and other end-of-contract work, but all dirt-moving is complete.
Rain on Sunday night and Monday brought work to a virtual standstill on the $26 million stretch, but drier conditions will allow workers and machinery to resume in a few days.
The new roadway nearest Tupelo is fully controlled access; it becomes a controlled access with grade-level crossings in more rural areas. The speed limit probably will be 65 mph, Holley said.
Holley said approximately $42 million was spent on earlier phases of the final segment, bringing total anticipated investment to $68 million for the approximately 10 miles.
Jamie McDonald, also a management level engineer based in Tupelo, said pre-construction soil testing had allowed MDOT and contractors to deal with potential problems before they happened during construction.
Holley said MDOT engineers worked on-site every day with specs and blueprints in hand and dealt with non-compliance issues largely before they fully developed. Materials requiring analysis were brought to the MDOT laboratory in Tupelo for testing, the engineers said.
APAC, a Tupelo-based firm, has the $26 million contract for paving the 10-mile segment.
The highway also is designated Corridor V in the Appalachian Development Highway System. Mississippi and the federal government have invested more than $300 million in the full corridor, which veers northeast into Alabama east of Fulton where it is part of the U.S. 78/Interstate 22 corridor.
Other federal funds used in the construction were administered by MDOT and applied specifically to the U.S. 278/SR 6 projects.
None of the Mississippi 6 section between Tupelo and Highway 342 near the Black Zion community is open, but U.S. 278/SR 6 is open from 342 to Batesville.
Holley said motorists should not drive on the unfinished highway because of safety issues.