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Community welcomes soldiers back to former Fort Ritchie

February 06, 2003|by MARLO BARNHART

marlob@herald-mail.com

When U.S. Army Maj. Steve Labate walked into the Germantown Church of God Wednesday evening, the smell of home cooking was welcome.

And so was the outpouring of friendship to Labate and more than 45 off-duty military personnel offered from community members as they converged at the church from Smithsburg, Cascade and several points in nearby Pennsylvania for the event.

The church and the Cascade-area community came up with the idea to say thanks to the young men and women who are at the forefront of defending the nation, said Karl Weissenbach, one of the organizers.

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"This is a nice departure for us," Labate said. "We usually 'live on the economy' as we call it." That means most meals are fast-food take-out since there are no kitchen facilities at the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base, he said.

The former base in Cascade began housing members of the military again in the fall of 2002. Military police - approximately 75 U.S. Army reservists mostly from New York and New Jersey - have been providing security at nearby Site R since November.

Site R, known locally as the "underground Pentagon," is an alternate military command center inside a Pennsylvania mountain near the Washington County community of Pen Mar.

The Army is leasing a building at Fort Ritchie from PenMar Development Corp. to provide housing for the soldiers.

Those soldiers who were on duty and unable to attend Wednesday night's event got bags of gifts from the church and the residents.

"I'm with the 306th Military Police Battalion," said Staff Sgt. James McNaughton. A New York City Police Department officer for about a year, McNaughton, 24, was called up in November and expects to be on duty for about a year.

"We are very appreciative of this," McNaughton said of the dinner. "It's really different here, not like the metropolitan area where I'm from."

Pastor Bruce Henneman officially welcomed the soldiers and assured them that the dinner was just the beginning.

"We want you to be our extended family while you are here with us," Henneman said.

A clipboard was passed around the room and the soldiers were encouraged to list their names, interests and hobbies so they could be hooked up with local families for inclusion in some home activities.

Alvin Jones, an 83-year-old Smithsburg resident and veteran of 32 years in the Army, tried to shake every hand at the dinner Wednesday.

"It's just so good to see uniforms back at Fort Ritchie again," Jones said.

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