“The Army is really good at fighting our nation’s wars, but we’re not so good at running housing,” says McKie with a chuckle. “It’s just so complex. And there were always other financial priorities that came before housing. This is a way better solution and way better housing than we’ve ever had.”
That’s not the only recent change in base life. According to McKie, a greater emphasis is now placed on striking a healthy work-life balance for those who live here. “This base is not just about getting ready for the mission,” says Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Motley, deputy commander of the Air Force’s 87th Mission Support Group (MSG), which handles security forces, communications and community relations for the base and manages lifestyle perks and essentials like special events, lodging, housing and food. “We need to focus on the people here and make sure that everything you can find on the outside, you can also find on the inside. Because you can’t be focused on your job if you’re worried about your quality of life.”
To that end, JB MDL provides ample services for base employees and residents, including several pre-K childcare centers, yoga and zumba classes, a single-screen movie theater, a library, a sports bar on the McGuire side called Pudgy’s, two separate Boy Scout troops, and year-round activities for niche interests in everything from arts and crafts to bowling, hunting and quilting. JB MDL also has a rotating calendar of seasonal events, including a summer concert series, a massive soccer tournament, friends and family cookouts and frequent 5K runs.
“Living here is like living in a small, gated city,” says Manning. “We have everything we need to function as a community without any outside help. I don’t have to go off base for anything, which is definitely a benefit of being a military member. You’re provided all of these amenities that help make it feel like your home away from home.”
To be sure, there are a few idiosyncrasies that make living on base decidedly unlike anywhere else, says Staff Sergeant Russell Toof, a reservist who works in the public-affairs office of the 99th Regional Support Command. For example, flags on the base are lowered at 5 pm, when all vehicle and foot traffic comes to a momentary halt.
“It’s a lot of little nuances like that,” says Toof, who lives in a townhome on the McGuire side with his wife and dog. “Traffic can also get crazy at the end of the day because you’ll have a line of 30 cars all waiting to get into a housing development. Also, you have enormous planes flying over your house every night. But you eventually just get used to that.”
And then there’s the transient nature of the population. Most of the non-civilian employees based at JB MDL only stay for two or three years before getting a new assignment. For Klein, August marked the end of a 1½-year tenure here, and once again, he and his wife and three children—ages 10, 13 and 16—packed up and moved. It’s a fact of military life that Klein and others embrace with a mix of enthusiasm and lamentation.
“If you’re going to be a military kid, you learn how to make friends real quick,” says Klein one July afternoon over lunch in a small dining hall with McKie and Mc Kean. “The sad thing is they make these friends and then they leave. So I’ve noticed that they form really deep friendships, but when we move, they don’t really hear from them anymore.”
“We raise tough kids,” interjects McKean, who’s been stationed at 16 different bases over the course of his career, all while raising two children. “I think it makes them a little more resilient, because they constantly have to pick up and start over again and again.”
On the plus side, Klein’s kids have visited several different countries and experienced a multitude of cultures, which, he says, makes them “citizens of the world.”
“They know how to take a train in Germany. They speak Spanish. And in general, I think they’re incredibly respectful of other cultures because of that exposure,” he says. “But when it’s time to move on, they’re ready for the next adventure.”
Klein’s departure will cause nary a ripple in life at JB MDL where the ethos of workaday America meshes with the ceaseless, vigilant whirr of military preparedness. To an outsider, it may seem as inscrutable as a monastery, but to those who call it home, the base is anything but.
“It’s really nothing like you see on TV or in the movies,” says McKie. “Whatever preconceived notion you have is probably not accurate. We’re professional, friendly, down-to-earth people, just like you find everywhere else in America.”
Growing up in South Jersey, Nick DiUlio was fascinated by Fort Dix and McGuire. After 36 years, he was thrilled to finally get a look inside for this report.Click here to leave a comment