Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — NIAGARA FALLS — Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s visit to the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station left the people who work there and local political leaders breathing a little easier.
The base was scheduled for cutbacks earlier this year when the Defense Department’s Commission on Base Realignment and Closure announced that the 107th Airlift Wing, one of two units located at the base, would lose its mission.
Clint Ronan, who has served in the Air Force reserve for 21 years, would likely lose his position at the air base if the mission was lost. He said that Panetta’s visit gives him confidence that his unit will be given a new mission.
“The support of the secretary means everything to us as troops,” he said. “For him to take time out of his schedule with the budget concerns going on, it’s a really good feeling that our congressional leaders can get him on board to what we do here at a day-in, day-out basis.”
Ronan, who has been deployed twice, added it was an honor to meet Panetta.
“He was very personable and very down to earth,” he said.
Congresswoman Kathy Hochul, D-Hamburg, invited Panetta to visit the base while meeting with the secretary at the Pentagon. At that meeting Hochul began talks with Panetta about seeking a new mission for the air base, she said.
“We have 80,000 miles worth of fiber optics in this region,” Hochul said. “So when they talk about the military of the future, cyber security, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, we’re there and we’re ready.”
Hochul said that she also presented the region’s many institutions of higher learning as an asset that the military should consider.
“Smart people could be part of that military of the future which is going to rely very heavily on technology,” she said.
Also on hand for the visit were U. S. Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Congressman Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy.
Schumer, who was Panetta’s roommate in Washington D.C. for 11 years, described Panetta as a very compassionate person who would carefully consider his visit to the airbase when making any future decisions.
“He’s a fine person, a decent person, we’re close friends and he told me, as he left, that he saw that this base had a unique relationship between it and the community,” Schumer said.
Schumer said that Panetta told the local political leaders that the base would not close.
“That’s a good first step,” Schumer said. “But our mission now is to see that the base doesn’t shrink.”
Higgins said that the base’s proximity to what he described as “high target” locations for possible terrorist attacks such as Niagara Falls, the Peace Bridge and Toronto should make it a priority for the military to keep open.
“This facility is well-positioned for a new mission to help lead us in our air defense leading into this century,” he said.
Niagara Military Affairs Council Chairman Merrell Lane has been a long-time advocate for the air station. He said that he also sees Panetta’s visit, and the investments that the secretary mentioned in his speech, as a good sign for the future of the base.
“Any major investment like that by the Department of Defense would strengthen our position at Niagara,” Lane said.
Lane added that the base has good military value.
“We’ll continue to work with the community and the local politicians,” Lane said, “to strengthen our position.”