NAS Lemoore is a ‘hidden gem’ with an image problem

By Mark D. Faram, Staff writer

NAVAL AIR STATION LEMOORE, Calif. — Tucked into the heart of central California’s farm country, this West Coast hub of the Navy’s strike fighter community has an image problem. And it needs to be fixed, fast.

While the air station will see tremendous growth over the next couple years, many sailors are reluctant to select it for a tour of duty — mostly because of its rural location and vague rumors around the fleet that it’s an undesirable place to call home.

Most sailors would be hard-pressed to locate it on a map, said Capt. Monty Ashliman, commanding officer of the base, in an April 29 interview with Navy Times.

Now he and other Navy officials are actively working to turn around the reputation of this little known, little understood base.

Ashliman, who took command in June 2013, is preparing the base — selected last year as the Navy’s first home for the F-35C joint strike fighter — for one of the biggest plus-ups of any Navy base over the next few years.

“In two years, this place gets 3,000 people bigger, Ashliman said. “That’s about a 30 percent increase, and that’s significant.”

And that number just includes the active-duty personnel who will be arriving, not the thousands of dependents who will undoubtedly accompany them.

“Our child development center, our schools, the schools out in the community, housing on base, and other base facilities … we need to make sure we have the capacity to absorb that growth,” he said.

Roughly 7,200 military and 1,300 civilians now work at Lemoore, and almost 11,000 military dependents call it home.

To handle this influx, changes at the base are either underway or being discussed and planned, and Ashliman says it’s his job to show Navy officials where and how the base needs to grow to accommodate the new arrivals.

The feel of the place

Lemoore has one of the most unique designs in the Navy, as it is actually two bases in one.

Main side houses all the administrative functions, housing, recreation and medical facilities. Four miles to the northeast is the operations side of the base, where the runways and hangars are, along with smaller medical and dining facilities and a small gym.

But it’s this design, and the fact the base is surrounded by miles of farmland, that makes it good for training strike fighter crews.

“From a strict professional standpoint, I think it’s the best air station in the world to prepare aircrews to go out to aircraft carriers,” Ashliman said. “We have here what I like to call unimpeded training.”

The base’s remote location, away from any densely populated areas, allows the Navy to do things it simply can’t in fleet concentration areas, he said.

“Our air traffic patterns and how we do operations around the airfield is exactly how we conduct operations around an aircraft carrier at sea,” Ashilman said. “You don’t get that anywhere else in the Navy.”

Lemoore has all the amenities sailors would expect: an exchange and commissary; military hospital; morale, welfare and recreation facilities, and robust off-duty education programs, all packed into the base’s main side compound.

“The feel of the base is more like an overseas base because of the remote location,” Ashliman said. “The community here is very tight knit, and families of deploying squadrons have a very robust support system around them in a way you don’t find in fleet concentration areas.”

Because the median price of an off-base house is just $175,000, many families choose to purchase homes in the nearby towns of Lemoore and Hanford, but with 1,630 on-base homes — 1,436 enlisted and 194 officer units — there’s plenty of housing for those choosing to stay on base.

“It’s high-quality housing with a very small town feel,” said Tom Brown, who manages base housing under the military’s public/private venture agreement. “Cost of living is low and your money goes further here.”

Although housing stays full most of the time, waits are relatively short, from one to eight months, Brown said.

A big plus for military families are the two California public schools located on base, too, both of which are in the top 10 percent of all schools in the state.

Arguably the duty is toughest for the most junior sailors who don’t have cars and are stuck on base. Ashliman said it’s the command’s responsibility to ensure there are adequate facilities on base for the sailors who live in the barracks, so they have places to relax during off hours.

“The biggest things are communicating to our sailors what’s available on base,” he said. “And then we have to deliver on that and be open when we say were open. If we say something is open until 2100, then we don’t close the door until then, even on a slow night.”

Rumors and misconceptions

Still, Navy officials say Personnel Command has a tough time selling orders to the base, mostly because it’s not located in a fleet concentration area.

“It’s not that there’s a lot of negative things floating out there about Lemoore, it’s just that to most people, it’s a big unknown,” Ashliman said

“The great percentage of folks who say they don’t want to go to Lemoore can’t tell you why,” he said. “If you ask them their reasons, they don’t have direct knowledge, they’ve simply ‘heard things.’ ”

It’s because of the rumors and misconceptions that Ashliman and some of his staff traveled to Virginia Beach to talk to the two Oceana squadrons about his base and what it offers.

“It’s not like the Navy is stationing you on the moon,” he said.

He urges sailors up for orders to research Lemoore and see for themselves what the base and the area have to offer instead of relying on fleet scuttlebutt. Many of those who do take orders opt for the geographic bachelor gig, leaving their families behind in Norfolk, Virginia, or San Diego.

“If you make that decision because that’s really the best decision for you and your family, that’s fine,” Ashliman said, but if you are making that decision only because you don’t want to go to Lemoore and you’ve never been here, boy are you missing out on a great opportunity.”

Such was the case of Chief Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) (NAC/AW/SW) Eldukl Ngiraingas, a 19-year veteran who spent an initial tour at the base as a geo bachelor and commuted back to San Diego on the weekends.

“I never really got the feel for the place because I was either working on base or was commuting to see my family in San Diego,” he said.

But then he and his wife, Rizalina, a first class air traffic controller, got a dual military three-year tour at the base and moved up with the family.

“It changed my perspective about the place, bringing my family,” he said. “This is a great place for families to come, it’s a small-town environment and very safe, base housing is great and it’s very affordable to buy a home here and live off base, too.”

The pace of life in and around the base is slower than in fleet concentration areas and Ngiraingas and his family would stay, but he’s about to retire and his wife is up for order, so they’ll be moving on, but with fond memories of the base and area.

“Duty here is one of those hidden gems the Navy has to offer,” Ashliman said. “You don’t run across too many folks who don’t like it once they’re here and some, but not all, leave here kicking and screaming.”

Location, location, location

Ashliman himself didn’t have a true picture of the base when he took command. He’d visited on temporary orders, but hadn’t spent any real time getting to know the facility and the area.

“Instead of thinking this place is in the middle of nowhere, you come to realize it’s in the middle of everything, with a one to three-hour drive to most of everything California has to offer,” he said.

For those who like the outdoors, the Sierra Nevada mountains, with the famous Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks, are just over an hour away. It’s also within easy reach of wine tasting or West Coast beaches.

“If you want the big city hustle and bustle, two and a half to three hours away is San Francisco or Los Angeles,” he said. “All those things, if they’re an hour or two away, they are always an hour or two away because there’s no traffic here.”

“This is probably the most busy and stressful job I’ve had, yet it’s probably the best and most enjoyable personal time I’ve had in the Navy — the family time here is just out of this world.”

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