It’s a wrap for Col. Bert Rice, a native of Montana and a 40-year resident of Odenton, who retired at the end of May after wearing a variety of hats at Fort Meade. His professional journey began in 1959, upon graduation from Montana State University, when he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in Infantry through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). He began active duty in the U.S. Army in July 1959 and served until July 1989, retiring as a colonel.
Rice, 79, served in Vietnam from 1965–66 and 1968–69; during his second tour, he served as assistant division aviation officer with the 25th Infantry Division, then commanded Company B, 25th Aviation Battalion, 25th Infantry Division. He flew armed helicopters during both stints.
He was also assigned to Iran during its revolution in early1979. Upon returning, he served for three years in the Pentagon before returning to Fort Meade in 1982, where he served with First United States Army. Other stateside assignments included tours at Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Wolters, Texas; Fort Ord, Calif., and his initial stop at Fort Meade, from 1976–78; and he was the senior army adviser to the Nevada Army National Guard, Carson City, Nev.
Rice was employed by the Department of the Army at Fort Meade from April 2003 until his retirement. He served as project officer and program manager for several projects, including the Enhanced Use Lease (EUL), Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), transportation demand management and state-funded roadway projects. He served as director of transformation for five years and as the acting director of the Directorate of Public Works (DPW) for more than a year.
The highly decorated Rice also served the Anne Arundel County Council from 1994–98, as chair in 1998. He has been married to the former Deanna Swenson for 56 years, and they have two sons, Stephen and Kevin, both combat veterans of Desert Shield/Storm.
What are your thoughts on the progress in Odenton and the update to the master plan?
I’ve been following that project in a cursory way, and it appears that, at long last, there has been some forward movement. There seems to be a consensus about how to move forward, and that was key, because you need everyone on the same sheet of music. Let’s hope it can keep moving ahead.
When the most recent BRAC at Fort Meade began, did you think it would be more of a commuter event or that many people would move here?
When we first learned about the type of agencies coming here, we knew that many of those people were already commuters. When it started, there was much interaction with Anne Arundel County, the BWI Business Partnership and other parties that were involved early on. So, we learned where Fort Meade’s new workers were coming from and that many would be willing to use mass transit to get here.
Then, there was the telework angle. That had already taken hold to a degree; and there were even buses that came to the post from along the I-66 Corridor and even Fredericksburg. We also knew that some of those workers were going to transfer to other agencies, and others would retire. Since, the situation has smoothed out the way we thought it would: It’s now about a 65:35 state balance, with most workers coming from within Maryland, instead of the reverse.
Looking back, what surprised you the most about how BRAC actually happened?
The magnitude of the move itself: It involved only three agencies, but one (the Defense Information Systems Agency) employed 4,300 employees, with 5,700 workers total. The construction had to start by mid-2005 and finish by mid-2011; however, I was pleased with how smoothly everything went.
We knew that DISA would accommodate its people, too. It has a fitness center, a nice cafeteria, etc. The employees at the other agencies are like the most of us on post, who only have 30 minutes to go off campus to eat, etc. But now, the new PX has a variety of food vendors. What’s been good about that is that people adapt. We still have issues here and there, but people move along.
What are your thoughts on enlisted personnel retiring from the Army and staying in the area, as you and your wife have?
I’m a great one to ask, because my family and I didn’t intend to stay here for most of the past 40 years. In fact, I initially didn’t want to come here at all, but my assignment to Fort Meade was more of a blessing than I’d ever imagined. And the schools here were better than those in Salinas, Calif., where we had been living, which is near Monterey.
As for staying here, you get what you pay for. Taxes are high here, but the quality of life is pretty enticing; and for retirees, the legislature passed legislation that exempts $5,000 from state income taxes, and that goes up to $10,000 after you’re 65. The job market is certainly better here than it is in Montana and many other places, and know that anyone who doesn’t say that the medical treatment options are better here than they are in most places doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
So, once you set down roots and are used to the amenities here, that makes it hard to move.
What do you see as the highlight of your past 13 years at Fort Meade?
The last five commanders — Ives, McCreedy, Thomas, Rothstein and Foley — have given me a lot of flexibility in getting out and meeting people. A couple of highlights are the completion of BRAC in a very smooth manner, as well as working with the State Highway Administration (SHA) and Mass Transit Administration to figure out how to make the road network better. Know that for every road project, what you have to work out first is the dis/replacement of utilities that are in the way.
I’ve considered the SHA folks friends and colleagues. So, I’ll remember that, as well as working to set up the new access control point (ACP) at Rockenbach Road that is under construction.
Did you ever think that we’d see the appreciation for war veterans that we now do after you came back from Vietnam?
That’s a recent development for Vietnam veterans. For years, we felt that we were losers when we returned, due to the reception we received by the American people, who felt like we lost the war. However, I was engaged in 100 battles, and we never lost one; the war was lost on political decisions. We won World War II; Korea, the forgotten war, and Vietnam were stalemates that people didn’t want to think about.
But I really appreciate the reception now. The first bill [Gov. Larry] Hogan signed when he became governor was to establish every March 30 as Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day. So, the state is trying to help us through this.
Hospice of the Chesapeake and MPT have done a great deal in support of Vietnam vets, too. In mid-June, there was even a Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans event at the Maryland State Fairgrounds. There was a program on MPT that I was included in where I described what I did as an armed helicopter pilot, among other duties. They also set up 1,017 white chairs to represent the Maryland service members who didn’t come home.
What would you like to see happen at Fort Meade during the next five years?
Several things. I’d like to see many of the projects wrap, like the various access control points, including new control points at Mapes Road and routes 175 and 32, and Reece at Route 175, as well as the internal widening of Mapes and Reece roads to four lanes.
Generally, I want to see the continued build-out on the campus, and for the U.S. CyberCommand to become a major operational command, which would mean further expansion with StratCom and other commands that report directly to the Secretary of Defense. That would be huge for Fort Meade, which is really a joint base with Navy, Marines and Air Force, as well as the nation’s Cybercenter.
Is there anything that you would have liked to have done, but didn’t?
I would have liked to have seen the EUL through to completion. It was a new concept for Fort Meade and the Army, and it was necessary to move slowly to ensure that the benefits were understood by all parties.
There is merit in that process, but a number of roadblocks came up. For example, during the 2008 state legislative session, they established BRAC commercial zones. During that process, the EUL came up and it was said that, since that the complex would not be taxed because it was to be built on federal property, a payment-in-lieu of taxes (or PILOT)) would be paid by private firms; that would have to be negotiated between Trammell Crow, the state and the local county — that’s what happened at Fort Detrick and Aberdeen Proving Grounds. That delayed the process for some time, however, because we couldn’t figure out the impact.
Part of the deal also concerned how utilities worked into it, and the master lease was never completed. Those things are still in play with the Corps of Engineers. I wish we could have continued with the initial concept and still hope it happens.
Did you ever think that we’d see Fort Meade grow the way it has?
Not really. The first BRAC was in 1988, then 1991, 1993 and 1995, before the most recent BRAC in 2005. In 1988, this was something new, and people were concerned; by 1993, it was thought that we would be a receiver, rather than a loser, and we have been.
We did lose 8,100 (which could have been 9,000) acres to the Department of the Interior and the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in 1988. Given our expansion, we’d like to have that land back.
What’s next for you and your wife, Deanna?
We’re staying in Maryland, but we now have the option to travel. We are planning to spend three to five months a year in Montana and also visit our sons, who live in Colorado.
I anticipate being involved in the community, which will include working with veterans organizations. Also, I’ve been on the Anne Arundel County Public Library Board of Trustees for many years, and we’re working on building the new Annapolis library, which will take a couple of years. Two other libraries are in the works, too.