Welcome to Andrews Air Force Base.
"Our mission is diverse, unique and exciting," gushes the official letter to newcomers. "Being so close to the capital, you can almost feel the pulse of the nation," adds the base "Intro" fact sheet. "You may see or even participate in events and operations that directly affect the course of world affairs . . . the benefits of an assisgnment here cannot be matched."
Indeed. Here an enlisted man may find himself working on a presidential inauguration, and for an ambitious officer an assignment to this high-powered base is considered a plum, a career stepping-stone. History is made regularly at this 4,900-acre reservation, the self-styled "Aerial Gateway to the Nation's Capital" and the home of Air Force One 10 miles from the White House. But there is another, unofficial side to Andrews.
The high cost of living and the high-pressured atmosphere combine to make it, in the eyes of many who unwillingly come here, about as desirable a spot as, one officer suggested, the missile base at Minot, N. D. From the lowliest enlisted airman all the way up to the highest-ranking senior officer the story is much the same, differing only in detail and degree.
At Andrews, a sense of community, say several stationed here, comes from the shared experience of working in what is regarded as a hardship post. Off-base bars that often bind the servicemen but dismay the locals in other camptowns are virtually nonexistent around Andrews. Even on the base, the officers club is little more than a place to cash checks for many.
For members of this scattered military "community," life inside is like life outside, only more so: If the Washington area is transient, Andrews is more transient, with transfers taking place as regularly as summer, when most of the shifts occur. If prices here strain civilian budgets, military families on what are essentially fixed incomes say they are hit harder.
Listen to Lt. Col. Ronald Bowen 37, with the choice job of special assistant to the commander of the Air Force Systems Command, the weapons procurement agency headquartered here. "The Washington area is a place where an up-and-coming officer has to come sooner or later to get to the top, and professionally it's been good for me. But my blood pressure is probably extremely high and my backside emaciated."
And, despite his annual income of $37,000 and his wife's part-time job as a nurse, life for the Bowens, who live off-base, has become "a hand-to-mouth-type operation . . . I honestly don't see how an enlisted man can survive."
First Sgt. Ronald D. Shusta, an older, higher ranking enlisted man who is almost a father figure to the young personnel in the base supply squadron, gets several requests each month for hardship transfers based on the cost of living.
"They want to know, 'How can I get out of here?'" Shusta said. "I just look at them and say, 'You can't.'"
"They say if you can survive in this area, you can survive anywhere," said Sgt. Helen Gibson, who lives with her husband -- an amateur boxer -- and two children in a second-hand trailer on the base. For Gibson, a stock clerk, survival means -- in addition to her $674 monthly paycheck and allowances of $305 for housing, $122 for food and $6.71 for clothes -- collecting $30 a month in food stamps and shopping at the commissary, which in 1980 redeemed $60,896 worth of the public assistance coupons.
"We asked for Washington State, not Washington, D.C.," said Lois Rice, mother of three and working wife of a sergeant who also holds down a second job."This is a hard area." Rice speaks for more than herself. She also runs Family Services, a base office staffed by 28 volunteers who help the uniformed needy.
Among other services, the office lends dishes, dishpans and even beds to the newly arrived and the hardpressed. "We got two calls today from people moving off-base, and they don't have enough money to buy beds," said a weary Pat Longenbach, a major's wife.
Those in trouble also flock to the chaplain's office where eight ministers spend more time counseling than preaching. Whatever spiritual problems afflict other bases, the "primary need here is financial," said Doug Jones, the head chaplain. And from that need, Jones suggested, spiritual problems, particularly family feuds, flow like a terrible tidal wave. s
Among those seeking to stem the tide is Lt. Col. Jerry Singleton, a former fighter pilot and POW turned Southern Baptist chaplain. Since arriving last August, he has counseled seven or eight people a week, a caseload twice as large as he had at the larger Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Tex.
"When I was first told of this assignment, I wanted very much not to come," said Singleton, "just because it's a very busy, pressure-intensive environment. By comparison, down there the general pace of life is somewhere around 50 miles and hour. Up here, it's 100 miles an hour. Just being in this area puts added stress . . . It's still not the kind of place I want to establish our family permanently. But it's good because I get a magnified view of the kinds of problems Air Force families face."
The primary problem, of course, is housing.
On the base, there is no housing set aside for the 744 airmen stationed here. For the 1,325 officers, there are 390 units of housing and a waiting list of 18. There are 1,696 units for 2,774 noncommissioned officers -- and a waiting list of 475. There are 52 more persons waiting for spaces in the 215-site base trailer park, which is open to any rank. Collectively, these house-hunters face waits of 90 days to 10 months, depending on rank and season, for on-base units classified by the budget year built, as in "Fiscal Year 64 housing."
Most must make their way in the private market. For enlisted personnel, the way generally leads to places like Andrews Manor across Allentown Road ("So-o-o convient," says the classified ad) where brochures from three furniture rental firms can be found in the office and 45 percent of the tenants are military, or to aging apartment complexes in surrounding towns like Suitland, Forestville or Temple Hills. For officers -- most of whom have little equity for downpayments because of frequent moves -- there are the subdividions of southern Prince George's and Charles Counties.
Since October, service members have received in addtion to a normal housing allowance an extra payment varying from region to region, and like everything else in the military, according to rank. Not surprisingly, the "variable housing allowance" paid here is second only to that received in Los Angeles. But, many service people say, it's still not enough.
It is the off-season now for the annual house-hunt -- most of the 1,500 or transfers are months away -- but real estate firms near the base are poised for the summer invasion. Several of the companies boast of their Air Force connections, of the number of agents who are either retired military or service wives. "It's the camaraderie of belonging to the same organization," said E.R. (Mac) McCreedy, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel in charge of the Camp Springs office of Coldwell Banker-Routh Robbins Realtors, in the Andrews Manor Shopping Center opposite the base.
The comaraderie at Andrews is, like other aspects of life here, defined by distance. "It's a fractured environment," explained Maj. William Campbell, an Air Force Systems Command public information officer who commutes from Springfield, Va. "The first social function, I had to drive 65 miles one-way. You just don't have office parties." When base banquets beckon, Campbell said, "you have guys changing in the base gymnasium and in cars because it doesn't make sense to drive home, suit up and drive back."
In this environment, the base clubs are, well, different. Among the largest in the Air Force, they also have unusually high percentages of retired military as members. Active military members make up a bare majority of the 5,452 "O Club" members, with the rest divided between retirees, civilians assigned to the Defense Department, 31 widows and 14 local politicians who enjoy its hospitality for free. The NCO Club has nearly as many retired as active Air Force members.
The wives' club follow suit: The NCO Wives Club has 16 wives of active duty servicemen, compared to 32 whose spouses are retired. "Last year, when it cam time to elect officers [who must be "active members], we had an awful time," said Linda Duffie, the current president.
Most of the 1,010 members of the Officers Wives Club also have "associate" status because their husbands have retired and, of those whose husbands haven't, a majority live off base. Membership has dropped 200 in two years, "we assume because of the cost of living," said President Dottie Curto, but, she added proudly, fund-raising for charity has held its own.
Curto and her husband, Sal, live on-base and, in some respects, they, are atypical of most assigned here. While many others come here to work and then go home, they are home and, as Dottie Curto said, during a recent country and western night at the club, "We're a big family. I think people on the outside don't understand the military, which is too bad," she said. "We are them."
On the base, however, life can be a bit sheltered: At the NCO club, bingo -- promoted as the central feature of "adult games" night -- a big and "variety dancers" bump and grind but, unlike their off-base counterparts, never strip. During the "O Club" happy hour, draft beer is 35 cents and Dolly Parton, Glenn Miller and the Village People share the same juke box.
The world beyond this comfortable cacoon is "like another planet, very crime-oriented, very scary," said Irene Wilson, a lieutenant colonel's wife who also works on base as a legal secretary. "I'm afraid to leave the base," she said over drinks at the officers club. "On the base, it's very unpressurized."
But hostile, outside forces keep intruding. Some 670 base children are bused to four public primary schools in surrounding towns, while 897 attend two county schools on the base. And, for the second time in two years, the Prince George's school board proposed in December to close one of them, Andrews Elementary, as part of a county-wide consolidation.
They are all "new kids" and there is no stigma in being one at the base schools. But this very transience that helps their kids, hurt their cause, the parents said. Most vote elsewhere and complain they were being treated like second-class citizens. Despite their protests, the board voted to close their school come September 1982.
"I am sure you will enjoy Andrews and the Washington area," the base welcoming letter had promised. "Though there may be some adjustments required for those not accustomed to metropolitan living, the benefits of an assignment here cannot be matched."
Lamented one officer who now knows of both the benefits and the adjustments, "It's another world beyond the fence." And the fence seems to get smaller and smaller all the time.