A drive through McChord Air Force Base is an encounter with what looks less like a military installation and more like a Weyerhaeuser planned community, complete with athletic fields, entertainment facilities, a huge commissary, specialty stores and beautiful new homes rivaling the finest in Pierce County.

These homes, complete with informal family name plates such as “the Morrises,” are not the officers’ quarters. They’re for married enlisted personnel!

“These are the people who deserve the best housing,” says base Public Affairs Chief, Major Bill Barksdale, an articulate young officer who arrived at McChord in August 1998. “They get paid less than commissioned officers. They work very hard and often at the worst hours. They’re just incredible.”

“We’re very proud of these housing units,” adds Master Sgt. Rick Burnham, superintendent of the base newspaper, The Northwest Airlifter. “You just don’t see these on every base.”

Include one of the finest airfields anywhere in the world to the highly skilled personnel running air operations and McChord becomes a community unto itself. It’s “home,” say the senior commissioned and non-commissioned officers who are responsible for this city of more than 10,000 military personnel and their dependents.

But as Maj. Barksdale makes clear, the personnel at McChord earn the perks that come with jobs well done. The USAF does not accept any recruit with a beating heart. It looks for educated, trainable men and women with high expectations for themselves on the job. It’s a philosophy that seems to work well here. McChord’s efficiency rating is sky-high.

From the sweeping view from his headquarters office window, McChord Air Force Base Deputy Commander, Lt.Col. John Medeiros, oversees one of the most vibrant and vital military air bases in the world.

This imposing home of the Air Force’s 62nd Airlift Wing is one of the most formidable economic engines in Pierce County.

Its dollar value alone exceeds $3 billion and is growing by more than $100 million annually. More than 10,600 active duty military personnel and their dependents are attached to this base, which also provides jobs for nearly 2,000 civilian employees.

Total annual repair and renovation here exceeds $133.4 million annually, and the base pumps a total payroll approaching $336.5 million into the area economy each year.

“We’re putting a huge demand on the construction industry,” Col. Medeiros says. “As you enter the main gate, we have a new medical clinic going up—a huge facility costing $15 to $20 million by itself.”

Construction projects are under way throughout this strategic military facility in the heart of the Pacific Rim. Many, but certainly not all, are related to McChord’s ongoing changeover from the Lockheed C-141B Starlifter transport, workhorse of the U.S. Air Mobility Command for the last 34 years.

The new kid on the block is the massive C-17 Globemaster III, a short takeoff and landing jet transport with engines more than twice as powerful as those on the Starlifter, enabling it to carry well over twice the payload of its predecessor. Two of the engines, rated at 40,400 pounds of thrust each, power the Boeing-757 airliner. The C-17 has four of them.

“We have a lot of construction going on here, but you really don’t notice it,” says Medeiros, a tall, wiry officer who is helping shape McChord’s needs well into the new century. “Why don’t you notice it,” he asks. “Because we have this “Team McChord” and “Town McChord” concept.

“I live here; this is my home,” he says.”A lot of contractors who don’t live here could easily go home and leave the job site the way it is. But we hold them to a higher standard here.”

McChord dates back to the 1930s, but under the leadership of base commander Col. Ray Johns Jr., Medeiros and their many predecessors, it has been kept in exceptional condition and always mission-ready.

With the arrival of the C-17s came an immediate problem. Their hangars were not tall enough to accept the much higher rear stabilizer the C-17 has in comparison to the C-141. Instead of demolishing the hangars and starting from scratch, the hangars were merely modernized to accept the taller tail section, saving thousands of taxpayer dollars.

“We look at this base with a lot of pride, but it takes a lot of work,” Medeiros says. “The best thing for us is when the taxpayers visit and see how we are taking care of their base.”

An opportunity for the public to do just that will come June 24 and 25 during an air show and static display on base.

“It’s an old base with old infrastructure,” Medeiros continues. “But that’s okay. We’ll keep working it and nickel and diming it as much as possible. Hopefully, we’ll continue to get the support of Sen. (Patty) Murray and (Congressman) Norm Dicks. They have been great supporters of McChord.”

Murray and Dicks could not be reached for comment.

By Richard Sypher, Business Examiner staff