Letting down the Guard

Soldiers with the South Carolina Army National Guard’s 1223rd Engineer Company wait to begin their deployment ceremony on June 22, 2013, at the Summerville National Guard armory.

Some of South Carolina’s 67 National Guard armories are aging and in poor condition. But don’t expect a fix to come any time soon.

With the Legislature’s $236 million bond bill practically dead for the year, advocates don’t see much of a chance they’ll get the $30 million needed to repair the buildings where guard troops muster before shipping out to places such as Iraq or Afghanistan.

Critics say it’s evidence of misplaced priorities and neglect.

“It’s a real disappointment,” said state Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, an infantry major in the S.C. Army National Guard who served in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008.

Smith contrasted the shortfall in Guard money with the effort to land the Volvo plant in Berkeley County announced this month.

“We can find $200 million to bring a Chinese company to South Carolina but we can’t find $15 million for soldiers and their families,” Smith said.

Guard officials estimate that close to $30 million is needed for armory site repairs around the state, but also point out that potentially half the bill could be covered by the federal government if the state were to set aside $15 million as matching funds.

The deficiencies include leaking roofs and floors, crumbling surfaces, aging doors and windows, poor air-conditioning and heating, and kitchens that are decades old.

And with little hope of repair money coming this year, conditions will stay that way. That means continuing “to patch things as best that we can,” said Col. Andrew W. Batten, the S.C. Guard’s construction and facility management officer.

Smith, who supported the bond bill, said allowing the buildings to stay in poor shape could eventually hurt recruitment. He cited parents who might persuade their children not to sign up after seeing Guard base conditions.

South Carolina has a long tradition of supporting local militias, but historians say the rise of more permanent brick-and-mortar armories began to take hold in the state around the era of World War I and into World War II. That’s when the Guard became a much greater contributor of manpower to America’s expanding involvement in wars overseas.

At the height of their popularity in the 1970s, South Carolina had more than 100 armories in all regions of the state. That number began to fall off in the last 30 years as the state’s demographics changed from rural to more urban.

Today, the 67 remaining guard armories still serve as rallying points for units and as places to train, store equipment and house office functions.

While the overall condition may be poor in other parts of the state, it is not nearly so dire around Charleston, officials say. The six National Guard installations in the region are considered to be in good condition. That’s because after the war on terror began in the wake of 9/11, Charleston was named part of the Guard’s Consequence Management Response Force and tasked with responding quickly to a sudden emergency, such as a terror attack. The result was that the armories here received millions of dollars from the federal government for modern upgrades.

All six local sites are considered to be operating under the heading of condition “green” or “good,” Batten said.

The $236 million bond bill, which is essentially a borrowing plan to fund repairs to state college buildings, armories and technical schools, is opposed by Gov. Nikki Haley and her allies.

Haley has compared the measure to “running up the state’s credit card.” Supporters have characterized the plan as an investment against further decay to all sorts of public facilities.

With only a couple weeks left in the session, the measure is essentially dead in the state Senate.

Smith said the armory repairs should be a priority, given its mission of responding to natural disasters and national threats.

“It’s an investment that’s long overdue,” he said.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551