Clepper the last commander at Fort Ritchie

July 10, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

FORT RITCHIE - Lt. Col. Frank Clepper Jr. got the biggest promotion of his career on June 24, 1997, when he took over command of Fort Ritchie in northeastern Washington County.

On Sept. 30, he'll close the base.

"It's kind of like a death in the family. You go through the three stages," he said. "Right now, we're in the acceptance stage."

Clepper has accepted his assignment with good grace.

"It was some unique challenges," Clepper said. "You got to worry about running one and closing one."

Fort Ritchie is taking three years to close, half the time the process normally takes.

"It decreases uncertainty for people that have to go on with their lives," Clepper said.

One of those people is Sgt. 1st Class Douglas Howard, who has called Fort Ritchie home since August 1994.

He knows he'll have a new home in October, he just doesn't know where.


And while frequent moves are part of Army life, Howard said, he has genuinely enjoyed his time at Fort Ritchie.

"It's a little more relaxed. You can get out and enjoy the post. It's great for family life," he said.

At its peak, the base housed about 1,700 civilians and 1,700 military personnel and their families. Now, fewer than 1,000 soldiers and about as many civilians remain.

That number will begin to decrease rapidly as soldiers move to Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., the Letterkenny Army Depot north of Chambersburg, Pa., and to other installations.

"It will be a sprint to the finish," Clepper said.

Clepper is responsible for making sure the closing goes according to plan.

When he leaves for his new post at Fort Hamilton, N.Y., everyone will be gone except for a caretaker unit of about seven people who will cut the grass and maintain the buildings.

Too lovely a place to leave

Clepper, 41, admits to a twinge of sadness as he considers the prospect from his office, which is inside a castle-like building in the middle of the rolling property.

Ritchie, a former National Guard station that the Army bought in 1951, has accumulated its share of history over the years.

During World War II, the Army used the facility to train teams of interpreters, interrogators and translators. Soldiers built a replica of a German village to aid in the training.

From 1946 to 1950, the base was used by the state Chronic Disease Hospital.

The base also played an important role during the Cold War, providing communications support for the "Underground Pentagon" buried in the mountains a few miles north in Pennsylvania.

In addition, the 64 acres of lush countryside and a lake provided a comfortable work environment.

"If we had our druthers, we'd never close this place. It's too beautiful, too pristine," Clepper said. "There's some personal regrets. I love living here."

The reality of the 1990s military quickly reasserts itself.

Fort Ritchie is one of 111 military installations across the country that have been slated to close since 1988.

Clepper said he feels content knowing the $13.5 million the military will save each year on operating expenses for Fort Ritchie will go for training and modernization.

"Hopefully, it will pay the dividend of two or three guys not killed in the next war," he said.

Even as he makes personal preparations, Clepper must look out for his soldiers.

Sgt. 1st Class Najaneiro Handley said Clepper has worked hard to keep up morale, which she said is as important as any of the technical preparations.

Handley said Clepper has organized comedy shows, cookouts and other activities for the soldiers and their families.

"If you do not have a leader that shows he cares, it can affect the morale of the whole base," she said. "He has been an inspiration in this move."

Destined for the Army

One reason Clepper likes Fort Ritchie so much is that it reminds him of his boyhood home in Tennessee. It was there that Clepper developed an interest in the Army.

His father was an Army reservist in 1949 and came home with a uniform for his 5-year-old son. Clepper said his parents still have a picture hanging in their home of him wearing a uniform with a patch from the 1st Armored Division - a unit he would join as an adult.

After high school, Clepper went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1979.

He served as a lieutenant in West Germany from 1979 to 1983.

As a platoon leader, Clepper led his troops on border patrols and engaged in maneuvers to make sure they were prepared for battle against the Soviet Union at a point along Czechoslovakia where military planners believed World War III might start.

"You got a sense and a flavor of danger," he said. "You could be called out any day. It might be for fun, and it might be for real."

After returning to the United States, Clepper served in the 82nd Airborne Division.

He was an officer in the light-tank battalion and commanded a company of M-551 tanks, which are light enough to be dropped by parachute from an airplane.

A late dinner

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