Saving Moody: Thirty years ago, S.Ga. fought to keep base open

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Oct. 24—VALDOSTA — With the government preparing to close a series of U.S. military bases in 1991, observers could have assumed Moody Air Force Base would be safe.

Moody pilots and airmen had successfully fought to liberate Kuwait from Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. Many were still stationed overseas.

In the early spring of 1991, Moody was named the best Air Force base in the world. On April 3, 1991, Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense for the first President Bush and the future vice president for the second President Bush, tapped Moody as the recipient of the prestigious Commander in Chief's Installation Excellence Award.

Yet, as one columnist lamented, "Cheney didn't say so, but the citation was to be Moody's epitaph."

Less than two weeks later, on April 12, 1991, Cheney announced a proposed list to close 43 military bases. The list included Moody Air Force Base.

Thirty years later, with military planes in the sky, men and women in uniform in the community, Moody Air Force Base obviously did not close.

But the threat to Moody Air Force Base in 1991 was real.

The people who scrambled to save it from closure did not know their efforts would be successful. They could not predict Moody would be open within the 24 months of that April 12, 1991, announcement, let alone 30 years later.

They knew what closing Moody would mean for South Georgia. Depending on the calculations, it would have meant the loss of approximately 3,500 to 6,000 to 9,000 military and civilian jobs in 1991. It would have meant the loss of their dependents from the South Georgia economy.

News reports predicted "economic disaster." The loss of Moody could have meant the loss of $150 million or more annually in 1991 dollars to South Georgia's economy.

It could have meant a change of business not only for Valdosta, but every community neighboring the base in South Georgia.

Those who saved Moody didn't have to prove the base's value to South Georgia. The Department of Defense and the BRAC commission understood that the majority of communities on their list would be negatively impacted by the loss of a military installation.

What Valdosta had to do was prove that Moody was not only an integral part of South Georgia, that the community would do whatever it could to facilitate Moody's missions, but that Moody AFB was an asset to the nation's security.

As a Valdosta Daily Times article noted, they had to "prove the base's value to the U.S. military machine."

Dark Hours

Valdosta-Lowndes County 1991 did not know if Moody could be saved, but the region did not assume closure would be automatic either. Political differences were put aside. The community unified behind the goal to save Moody Air Force Base. As often happens in history, what could have been one of Valdosta's darkest hours became one of its brightest moments.

For years, South Georgia has had the benefit of retaining many members of the Moody military community. From base commanders to airmen, numerous Moody retirees either stay or return to Valdosta. They discover second careers in a community they have come to call home while the region benefits from their military experiences, credentials and work ethic.

The ability to attract retired Air Force personnel proved paramount in the efforts to save Moody. The relationships provided inside information that gave Valdosta-Lowndes County a head start in removing Moody from the BRAC list.

In his biography, "From Dirt to Duty," W. Troy Tolbert of Valdosta, a retired Air Force general and former Moody commander who passed away recently, recalled receiving word of Moody's inclusion on the BRAC list two weeks prior to Cheney's announcement.

Tolbert received the call as he recuperated from a fall 1990 prostate cancer diagnosis. He didn't feel he could make the information public but Tolbert felt he must act. He informed then-Mayor James H. Rainwater. Tolbert insisted the information could not go public but that Valdosta must start prior to the DOD announcement to save Moody.

"Together, we drew up an organization chart that would rally the community together and combat the charges the Department of Defense committee used as to why Moody should be closed," Tolbert wrote in his book.

Valdosta needed a plan.

The retired general and the Valdosta mayor began mapping a plan immediately to challenge these and other BRAC claims against Moody.

"(Jimmy Rainwater) and I actually drew the chart on a brown paper bag," Tolbert wrote.

The Moody Team

From this early meeting came the plans for the Moody Support Committee, a powerful alliance of the region's retired military and active civilian leadership.

First elected mayor in 1988, Rainwater was only a few years into what would become a historic term of 15 years as Valdosta's mayor. He had the ironic distinction of having grown up a Tifton native who had resented Valdosta's size and prestige in his youth to become Valdosta's most steadfast advocates and arguably one of its greatest mayors.

As mayor, a Times editorial noted, Rainwater would become "Valdosta's voice, the city's representative, its administrator, ambassador, negotiator, cheerleader and leader." Rainwater died in office in 2003.

Saving Moody would be one of his proudest accomplishments and would secure his political power for the next dozen years in office.

In Rainwater's earliest discussions with Tolbert, it was decided the then-57-year-old, retired general would be instrumental in the Moody Support Committee, according to "From Dirt to Duty."

As the book title suggests, Tolbert rose from the cotton fields of rural Mississippi to become an Air Force fighter pilot and Vietnam veteran. During his 27 years in the Air Force, Tolbert commanded three Tactical Fighter Wings: the 347th TFW at Moody; the 388th TFW at Hill AFB in Utah, distinguished as being the Air Force's first operational F-16 wing; 1st TFW at Langley AFB in Virginia.

Retiring, Tolbert and his family returned to Valdosta. He served as the Moody Support Committee's executive director.

Five other men were considered key players within the Moody Support Committee.

Walter Gill Autrey Jr., then-44, served as the committee's chairman. A Vietnam veteran and Marine helicopter pilot, Autrey had been Valdosta's mayor from 1986-88. At the time, he owned large tracts of South Georgia and North Florida land and farmed fresh vegetables. He also worked as a securities broker.

He lives in the Apalachicola, Fla., area where he has operated a tour company, according to a travel blog that referred to him as "Captain Gill," the former mayor of Valdosta.

Col. G.J. "Joe" Prater was then a 48-year-old, retired Air Force fighter pilot and Vietnam veteran. With 26 years in the Air Force, Prater served tours at Tactical Air Command Headquarters and in the Pentagon's Air Force headquarters. He flew with the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's elite demonstration squadron.

During his two tours at Moody Air Force Base, Prater served as deputy commander for operations, vice commander for operations, and commander of Moody's 347th Tactical Fighter Wing.

Following his 1990 retirement from Moody, Prater and family stayed in Valdosta for several years before leaving South Georgia. He worked as a vice president with First State Bank & Trust, with Valdosta Technical College and served on the Valdosta-Lowndes County Airport Authority and with the Lowndes County Board of Health. He served as the Save Moody campaign coordinator.

Parker Greene's name became synonymous with involvement at Moody Air Force Base. By 1991, he had already gained a reputation as being "an avid supporter and friend of Moody for 25 years." From 1972-85, Greene served as chairman of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce's military affairs committee.

At the time, he served on the chamber's board of directors. He was also the commander of the "White Knuckle Squadron," a Moody group founded to increase community participation in the base through incentive jet flights. Greene's contacts in the Pentagon were legendary.

In 2007, Moody named its Consolidated Base Support Center in Greene's honor. Greene served as the Moody Support Committee's deputy director. Greene died in 2018.

Col. Bob Ator, then-51, also served on the committee. A retired fighter pilot and Vietnam veteran, he served 26 years in the Air Force. His time included two four-year tours in Europe; as well as base commander at Moody and at Langley AFB. Retiring with his family in Valdosta, Ator served many years as the director of Valdosta's airport and as vice president of Delta Petroleum Services.

He was involved with the Boy Scouts, Val Tech board of trustees and other area organizations. He worked daily with the Moody Support Committee. He passed away in 2017.

Major Dan McIsaac retired from the Air Force after 30 years. At Moody, he served as the comptroller squadron commander and retired with his family in Valdosta. At the time, McIsaac was employed with U.S. Press and was an active member of Park Avenue United Methodist Church.

Additional staff members of the Moody Support Committee included Chandler Carter, Dean Failor, Dick Clark, Leigh Dominey, Norman Huggins, and Bill Amos. Other Moody Support Committee members included Southern Circuit Judge H. Arthur McLane, Lowndes County Commission Chairman Fred DeLoach; Jewel Ivey, Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce president; Curtis Crosby of Atkinson County; Bill Perry of Berrien County; C.J. Keel of Brooks County; Wallace Jernigan of Clinch County; Max Lockwood of Coffee County; J. Hinton Reeves of Colquitt County; Jim Paulk of Cook County; Jack Carter of Echols County; Orton Bryan of Hamilton County, Fla.; Emory Walters of Irwin County; Larry Lee of Lanier County; Cary A. Hardee of Madison County, Fla; Jerry Rainey of Thomas County; Jimmy Allen of Tift County.

Ready for Action

By the time of Cheney's announcement and shortly after the public notification of Moody's inclusion on the base-closing list, South Georgia was ready. The region also had several big hitters from the state and nation in its corner.

Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., was chairman of the U.S. Senate committee on Armed Services. He was joined by fellow Georgia Sen. Wyche Fowler Jr., and congressmen Reps. Charles Hatcher and J. Roy Rowland in opposing the closure of Georgia's bases, especially Moody. Georgia Gov. Zell Miller also joined the battle.

Raising tens of thousands in a short period of time, the Moody Support Committee hired the powerful Georgia and Washington lobbying firm of Ginn, Eddington, Moore & Wade.

These figures worked behind the scenes and testified at BRAC hearings of Moody's importance.

Georgia columnist Bill Shipp speculated on the importance of these heavyweights saving Moody by writing, "It's hard to say which phone call, briefing, letter or private contact saved Moody Air Force Base from closing." It reminded Shipp of an older tale of Moody nearly being closed.

"In 1955, when Moody and Fort Gordon at Augusta were slated to close, President Dwight Eisenhower phoned Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Russell, D-Winder, to inquire about some unrelated administration funding item," Shipp wrote in a 1991 column.

"'I just can't think about that now,' the powerful Georgia senator told the President. 'I am so worried about those people losing their jobs in Valdosta and Augusta. That's all I can think about.'

"The President got the message," Shipp wrote. "Moody and Fort Gordon were removed from the hit list. Ike's appropriations were approved without debate."

As for the 1991 save, Shipp believed it could be attributed to a combination of "Sam Nunn's political muscle, former Congressman Bo Ginn's lobbying firm and a persistent grassroots protest."

While political clout and Valdosta's grit worked wonders, Moody's save may also owe much to the well-reasoned and compelling arguments made for saving the base.

Making the Case

In 1991, Moody housed 72 F-16 fighter jets. The BRAC Commission claimed Moody had limited air space for its F-16s, and poor weather hampered training operations.

By closing Moody and bases in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, the Air Force reportedly wanted to "consolidate its tactical fighter operations in the West, far from Army and Marine units, so it can concentrate on the long-range interception of enemy planes, not on ground support," according to a 1991 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.

The Moody Support Committee refuted the claims with several points. — Weather: Reports stating that South Georgia had less than perfect weather for flight training would suggest that fighter pilots would face only good weather in combat. "This criteria implies that pilots trained in 'good weather' are better. The weather that Moody pilots flew in recently in the Middle East conflict certainly was other than 'good weather.'" — Base infrastructure: Moody's infrastructure and growth potential did not receive adequate consideration in the initial BRAC review. "As a result, Moody's real military value is grossly understated." Two studies revealed that Moody's utilities, water, sewage, roads, taxiways, runways, etc., had more areas "rated as completely adequate to perform the tactical mission than any other base in the command." — Growth potential: Moody had 500 prime acres for development with close proximity to bombing ranges, and Army and Navy combat units for composite force training. "Moody offers the potential for expansion." — Recommendations: The Moody Support Committee recommended assigning another mission to the base. — Airspace encroachment: The base had adequate airspace in conjunction with other bases and operations. — Cost of closure: The committee believed the cost of closing Moody had been "substantially understated." — Economic impact: Income loss in South Georgia would have exceeded $230 million, "a 16% loss of income and a loss of over 6,000 jobs. Lowndes County will bear the brunt of the impact with a 23.3% loss of income and a 16.3% loss of jobs."

These arguments were made publicly, on phones, in meetings, in press reports, behind the scenes, during the May 21, 1991, BRAC inspection of Moody, and during the May 23, 1991, BRAC hearings in Jacksonville, Fla.

During the hearing, Nunn argued that Moody was vital in providing close air support for ground troops.

If Moody and other southeastern Air Force bases closed, Nunn argued before the BRAC commission, "the main losers in the proposition will be the Army and Marine ground forces, which will see less close air support training, particularly night close air support, which was identified as a major shortfall in Operation Desert Storm."

Whether it helped or not, Moody officially received the Commander in Chief's Installation Award of Excellence the day after the hearing.

During the hearing, Gill Autrey said, "It does appear a little bit ironic ... that we're discussing closing the best base in the Air Force."

Nunn told the BRAC commission, "I urge you to take a two-track approach. Accept that Secretary Cheney is correct in that Moody is the best in the Air Force; reject that it be closed."

A little more than a month later, BRAC did just that. Moody was removed from the closure list.

A New Era

On June 30, 1991, in a 5-2 vote, the BRAC commissioners voted to keep Moody AFB open. The panel openly questioned the Pentagon's reasons for wanting to close the base.

"I believe the Air Force has underestimated the overall military value of Moody," said BRAC Commissioner William L. Ball III, who was the commission member who personally toured the base. "It is a highly efficient base. ... It affords really ideal training."

A July 1, 1991, Valdosta Daily Times article noted that Ball argued "military planners unfairly downgraded Moody because of poor weather and air space congestion."

A dissenting vote came from BRAC Commissioner Howard "Bo" Callaway, a former Georgia Republican congressman. He agreed that Moody had been treated unfairly but he opposed keeping Moody open.

While the commissioners argued the fate of Moody, a Times article reflected that South Georgia held its breath awaiting the decision. Upon hearing word that Moody had been saved, the town breathed a sigh of relief in celebration.

"It was a hell of an afternoon, but we can all holler Hallelujah now," said Fred DeLoach, then-Lowndes County Commission chairman. "The Moody Support Committee and the whole community is to be congratulated."

With officials and residents watching the hearing on television, Mayor Jimmy Rainwater reflected that day, "It was the most gut-wrenching thing I've ever sat through. ... It is such a tremendous victory, my heart almost stopped."

Gen. Troy Tolbert said, "I'm so happy for the community, I don't know what to do."

Moody Air Force Base had been saved but the Moody Support Committee's work continued, hoping to ensure that South Georgia will not have to face another such "gut-wrenching" day in the future.

Dean Poling was a reporter with The Valdosta Daily Times in 1991.

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