EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE — One year after the official opening of the Army 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) cantonment, about 6,000 people, including soldiers and their families, have made Northwest Florida their home.
Buildings that were empty when the cantonment officially opened with a ribbon-cutting and open house Oct. 14, 2011, are now filled at the $255-million, state-of-the-art installation. Construction crews are building a chapel and finishing an overpass across State Road 85 to relieve traffic congestion near the entrance to the sprawling campus.
The 2,200-plus soldiers and their families, who were uprooted from their longtime home at Fort Bragg, N.C., are starting to settle in to the area, which has deep ties with the Air Force but until now hasn’t seen a large Army presence.
Although the transition has had its share of growing pains, the cantonment and the community seem a perfect match for the Special Forces Group, officials say.
“It was great forethought by the people who made that decision because this place offers us so much, from training opportunities to the room we have to grow,” said Lt. Col. James Brownlee with the group’s public affairs office. “When it comes to doing our mission and being able to be trained and prepared, this is the best thing that could have happened to us.”
Economists, in turn, say the Special Forces Group has been one of the biggest boons for the area since the recession hit in 2008. They estimate the group pumped $506 million into the local economy in 2011, and will have contributed about $517 million more this year.
The effort to adjust
There was a lot of animosity when the soldiers learned in 2005 that they would be moving from Fort Bragg to Eglin Air Force Base, Brownlee said.
“A lot of people didn’t want to come down,” he said.
Unlike other service members, 7th Special Forces soldiers don’t move from base to base, and had been stationed at Fort Bragg for most of their careers.
They had bought houses and their spouses had established careers, set up their own businesses and made lifelong friends.
“They’d built deep-seated roots,” Brownlee said.
Jonalyn Carver, whose husband Clay is a Green Beret, was one of those reluctant to move.
When she heard the group was moving, she ignored it because her husband had retired. But he re-enlisted three months before some soldiers began to relocate. When it came time to pack the moving trucks, her husband was deployed.
Carver’s oldest son was starting his junior year in high school, and she didn’t want to move him in the middle of the year.
So she rushed to pack up two houses and finish renovations, and then loaded the family’s belongings in a 26-foot moving truck to drive down herself.
She wasn’t able to bring everything the first trip. They had packed winter and summer clothes separately, but couldn’t take them all. She decided on the summer boxes.
“It’s Florida,” she said. “Then we got here and said, ‘What is this?’ It’s winter and it’s actually cold.”
Carver said her family struggled to adjust.
Her husband was gone. He’s only been to their new home for about five months in the two years since they moved.
She, her middle school son, her high school son and her nephew who was living with her while her brother was deployed had trouble. Like many other families, everything her kids had known was at Fort Bragg.
“Coming down here, you ripped all your roots out,” Carver said. “There was me and my kids and that’s it. We did good, though. It brought us closer together as a family.”
She said her youngest son had the hardest time. Students and teachers at school were saying unkind words about the new soldiers and Green Berets, she said.
“They were coming home in tears.”
But the school started teaching sensitivity and educating students and faculty about the new soldiers and their families, and things improved.
Now Carver works in the 7th Special Forces’ families and children division, and has seen more families settle in, often without their husbands and fathers. About 700 soldiers currently are in the middle of a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
Carver said it helped that local business people were extremely kind and welcoming.
“For the most part, people are now excited to live here,” she said.
Outdoors activities are a big draw. She said families enjoy the beach, fishing and living close to the water, much like so many other people making their homes in the area.
The military-friendly community also has helped, Brownlee said.
“Everywhere I went (when I first moved here) — and it continues today — people are so energized and welcoming to have us here,” he said. “In my 20 years, without reservation, this is the best assignment I’ve had.”
A new and improved home
It’s also helped that the new cantonment is a big step up from the 7th Special Forces’ previous headquarters at Fort Bragg.
On any given day, soldiers train to keep combat ready, from rappelling from helicopters to practicing hand grenade skills at their state-of-the-art home.
The group is made up of 18 12-man teams trained for special operation warfare and defense. Their primary area is Central and South America, but they have had a large presence in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.
There also is a large staff to support the teams, from training to coordinating to looking after their families while they are deployed.
At Fort Bragg, they shared a tight space with several other Special Forces groups. The campus there covered 350,000 square feet.
At Eglin, they have about 1.1 million square feet. The headquarters building alone is more than 68,000 square feet, compared to the 20,000 the group had at Fort Bragg.
“We’ve just under tripled our footprint,” said Sgt. 1st Class Michael Jerome, the noncommissioned officer in charge of engineering at the cantonment. “And that doesn’t even include the additions we’re building now.”
At Fort Bragg, each battalion had one central arms room that all 12 companies shared. Now, each company has its own arms room, which eliminates problems with accountability of sensitive items, Jerome said. The size of the team rooms also has doubled.
The group also uses 350 acres for training, and has access to 150 more acres and several ranges on Eglin’s reservation.
The additional space and quality of the cantonment has been a tremendous improvement that was a long time coming, Brownlee said.
“Maybe not everyone, but the majority of the soldiers will say, ‘Yes, this should have been done sooner,’” he said.
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Lauren Sage Reinlie at 850-315-4443 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRnwfdn.