“I didn’t want to release any classified information today,” Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich quipped at Wednesday’s Breakfast with the Mayor before he revealed two major updates on Keesler Air Force Base.
He said the groundbreaking for the base’s Division Street gate will be June 1, and the base is one of the top contenders in the country for the newly consolidated battlefield airman training program.
The new gate is an announcement 15 years in the making, he said. It will be built at the western end of Division Street for easier access to Interstate 110, and to eliminate the need to cross railroad tracks to get to the White Avenue main gate.
Gilich had made a new gate for Keesler his mission when he was elected mayor in May 2015.
“This is No. 1 on my list of priorities,” he said at the time. “We must move the gate to Division Street to strengthen the base’s security posture and to help protect it against future BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) initiatives. Keesler is vital to Biloxi’s economy and growth, and this move is critical to protecting Keesler’s mission.”
The state provided $5 million for the new entrance, and Gov. Phil Bryant will attend the ceremony along with Col. Michele Edmondson, commander of the 81st Training Wing at Keesler. After two years in Biloxi, she will leave the next day for her new assignment at the Pentagon. Her successor will be Col. Debra Lovette.
Gilich also announced Keesler is near the top of the list of bases being considered for the battlefield airman training program, which he said could mean 1,000 new airmen and millions of dollars of economic impact to Biloxi over time.
“The South Mississippi region, which includes Keesler Air Force Base, Camp Shelby, Woolmarket Range, Stennis Space Center and the Gulfport Combat Readiness Training Center’s Battlefield Airmen Center, is still currently under consideration for battlefield airman training but site surveys are still ongoing,” said Capt. David Murphy, chief of public affairs at the 81st Training Wing at Keesler.
South Mississippi is one of six sites that have been reviewed, he said, with two more remaining.
He said Keesler will have a better idea in August if it is still in the running.
An article in the Air Force Times says battlefield airman training is “challenging and strenuous” and turns airmen into special operations weather airmen, tactical air control party enlisted airmen, special tactics officers, combat rescue officers and air liaison officers. Only about 20 percent of those who enter the program graduate, according to the article.
In July, the Air Force announced eight installations would be consolidated into three or four sites for training the new Battlefield Airmen Training Group, activated last year. Currently training is conducted at eight bases across seven states. One of those sites is at Keesler, so if the base isn’t selected it could lose that training.
The other contenders for training sites are Eglin Air Force Base, Patrick AFB and Hurlburt Field in Florida; Joint Base San Antonio; Little Rock AFB, Arkansas; Shaw AFB, South Carolina and Vandenberg AFB, California.