FORT SHERIDAN, ILL. -- Before Operation Desert Storm, this historic Army garrison, sandwiched amid some of the priciest real estate in Illinois, was getting ready to shut down, its staff certain that the barracks had seen the last soldier sent here to be processed for a mission.
But the call-up of thousands of reservists because of the war has thrown Fort Sheridan into one last mobilization effort. "We had to hurry up and dust off our procedures for mobilizing the reservists and the National Guard," said Dan Trew, the civilian public affairs spokesman. "There was no talk that we would be involved in any mobilization until Iraq invaded Kuwait."
Fort Sheridan, less than 40 miles north of the Loop, is one of 85 military installations that Congress has agreed should be closed in an effort to cut military costs by condensing some operations and expanding other bases' responsibilities.
"They felt that, with the Army's future emphasis on training, there was a requirement for expansion of military bases, and Fort Sheridan has no room to expand," Trew said. Tasks currently performed at Sheridan are to be siphoned off to Fort Knox, Ky., Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, and Fort McCoy, Wis.
While the current processing of reservists to take over duties of soldiers sent to the Persian Gulf region or to go to war themselves will not affect plans to close Sheridan, ideas about what to do after the shutdown in 1994 have inspired quite a battle.
Various groups have been clamoring for a piece of the 695 acres of scenic property that fronts Lake Michigan and includes more than 100 historic buildings and cream-colored brick mansions worth more than $1 million each.
Plans to construct housing for the homeless or a prison were deemed inappropriate because of how they would contrast with affluent neighboring communities and their multimillion-dollar estates.
However, veterans want land for a cemetery, the state of Illinois wants the base helicopter pad and neighboring politicians want a golf course and public beach.
The military would like to keep its hand in the planning, and the Defense Department has "sent strong signals that it must have substantial resources that will pass to them as a result of base closure," said Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), whose district includes the post. The Army's world recruiting headquarters is based here, and Army authorities want to keep these facilities. Neighboring Great Lakes Naval Base wants to acquire several acres of homes and barracks.
Still other people would like to see the historic buildings restored and converted into museums to showcase the fort's rich military history.
Fort Sheridan was established by Union Army Gen. Philip Sheridan, whose troops were called to maintain law and order during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and again during railroad workers' strikes in 1877. Eventually, the post's mission was expanded beyond protecting Chicago.
Infantry and cavalry from the base accompanied Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing in his pursuit of the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa in 1916. The post served as a hospital during World War I and housed German prisoners of war during World War II.
The Fort Sheridan Commission, composed of area residents and groups appointed by Congress, is charged with presenting the Defense Department with a plan for what should happen when the fort is closed.
So far, its members have agreed that an 18-hole golf course will occupy 145 acres and a veterans cemetery 120 acres. Porter said the tricky part of making the plan work is to balance military, public and private interests.
However, as Porter noted, "If there are going to be a number of federal facilities on the land . . . there doesn't seem to be much of a point in closing it at all." Much as he would like to see the fort stay open, he said, "if one of the 85 bases is allowed to stay open, then they'll all want to stay open, and that's just not going to happen."
Although the land is estimated to be worth more than $250 million, as-yet-unknown environmental damage from more than 100 years of military activity could lower the price tag and possibly discourage private-sector bidders. Tons of unexploded ordnance lie in Lake Michigan, and a huge ravine has served as a dumping ground that includes medical waste dating to World War I.
At worst, Operation Desert Storm will only temporarily fend off closure of what John Morehead, who is overseeing the fort's transition, called "a regional, historical gem."
For now, troops being processed for war duty are sleeping in the same barracks as did Gen. George S. Patton at the beginning of his career in 1909. It is quite possible that these soldiers may be represented among the wartime memorabilia in the Fort Sheridan Museum as the last troops processed here for war.