FORT SILL, Okla._The commanding general at Fort Sill is saying the future is bright for the military post, but there's still work to be done.
Major General John Rossi says he's "cautiously optimistic" and spoke to business leaders from across the county and challenged them to learn more about the soldiers, their needs and what their families go through each day.
Fort Sill is the largest field artillery complex in the world, with 70,000 people on post.
Each year, the Lawton Chamber of Commerce invites Fort Sill's current commanding general to provide an overview of the military installation. General Rossi and Jacob Brox, a Chamber of Commerce chairperson, agree that business owners in the community are essential to the success of the military.
"We bring soldiers here for their first assignment, you make them want to stay. We bring them, but you're going to make them want to stay, you're going to make them want to enlist here, you're going to make them want to come back here and you're going to make them want to retire here," Rossi said.
Rossi and the Chamber agree that everything that happens on Fort Sill affects Lawton and it takes the local businesses to make the new soldiers and their families feel at home.
"I ask you to learn the soldiers, visit us, it's open, ask questions, especially for those who don't have a good military connection or military background. Ask why we're able to do the things we do and participate in many of the events that we have," Rossi said.
Brox said, "They know they can call us and we'll work very hard to do everything we need to make their mission accomplished."
Between 18,000 and 20,000 soldiers, or about 30 percent of all new soldiers, in the Army must come through Fort Sill each year, and right now there is a population of about 70,000 on post. He noted that many people would fill the Georgia Dome, and the post is as large as the city of Detroit, which is about 95,000 acres.
Fort Sill's contribution to the community is nearly $2 billion a year and it's one of the top five employers in the state.
About 60 percent of soldiers are married and about 80% of married couples live off post, so Rossi and the Chamber stressed how much the military depends on the local community and the cooperation of businesses including the importance of: education, housing, medical care, religious support, spouses being able to get jobs off post, things to do in the area and recreation. Rossi says Fort Sill is working to ensure they work as closely as possible with those who can provide those amenities within the community.
Along with partnering with communities to ensure a good environment for recreation, Rossi says Fort Sill is looking to make sure the post is broadening its diversity, as well as working on preparation and keeping everyone safe and secure.
Rossi also addressed diversity, security, challenges and the future of Fort Sill.
A female brigade commander will be arriving at Fort Sill as a commander next summer from South Korea. Rossi says originally there were no female, senior officers in basic training, but he wanted to see a change.
"It just didn't appear right when I got here that we're teaching soldiers basic training, how to march, how to be good soldiers, how to be artillerymen…why would we not have females represented. So we pushed and asked for it and it's been opened up to all branches," Rossi said.
Rossi says by next summer, all of the occupational specialties and field artillery will include women at Fort Sill.
Fort Sill will soon receive soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Lewis, Washington.
Rossi also provided insight on the latest concern Fort Sill has been tasked with handling, drones.
"One of the new threats out there that are very demanding are little unmanned aerial systems. The ones you see landing on the White House lawn that are flown with the gyrocopters and little handheld things, they can be weaponized. And just as important, they have cameras and the ability of eyeballs for someone who wants to watch what you're doing," Rossi said.
Rossi says the Fires Center of Excellence has been ordered to figure out how to defeat that threat.
Rossi noted Fort Sill is still an open post and about 60,000 people pass through the gates, and 50 people were arrested for warrants, but they believe the tight security deters those who may be a threat.
Fort Sill soldiers also worked with local fire departments to help during the recent flood rescues.
One Fort Sill section is representing the post at the Rose Bowl this year with the section's horses and cannons.
"My assessment is the future is bright, but pay attention. This is not something you want to put on autopilot and say, 'It went well last year, so now we can forget,'" Rossi said.