End Of An Era

I got news a few days ago that the last class of Army topographers (today they are called Geospatial Engineers) has graduated from the NGA College at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.  The course will be moved to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri in November.

This graduation, which took place on August 2nd, marks the end of Army Engineer training of any sort at Fort Belvoir.  It is the end of an almost 100 year presence at Belvoir, which openend in 1915 as an Army Engineer training ground and was originally named Camp A. A. Humphreys.

Fort Belvoir was always the traditional home of the Engineers.  It housed not just the Engineer School but also the offices of the Chief of Engineers and several key Engineer labs, including the Engineer Topographic Lab which today is designated the Army Geospatial Center.

At one time all Engineer officer training took place at Fort Belvoir (I attended my Engineer Officer basic and advanced courses there) but over time most Engineer enlisted training was moved to Fort Leonard Wood, which offered more training and maneuver space.  However, all formal topographic engineer training, for both officer and enlisted, remained at Fort Belvoir at the Defense Mapping School.

In the late 1980s the Chief of Engineers made the decision to move all Engineer training – officer and enlisted – to Fort Leonard Wood.  The decision was no surprise; the Engineers had been talking about it for years.  Still, it was sad to see the them vacate their traditional home.

As part of the move I know the Engineer School looked at ways of moving the Defense Mapping School to Leonard Wood, or at least relocating all Engineer topographic training to the new school.  The move didn’t take place for several reasons, but two key issues kept topographic training at Belvoir.  First was the fact that most of the courses were actually Joint classes – students from all military services, Department of Defense civilians and even a small population of foreign students were all mixed together in the same classes.  The other services and the Department of Defense liked the idea of having the training offered in the Washington D.C. area.  Apparently only the Army Engineers think central Missouri is an appealing locale. The other issue was equipment.  In the 1980s and well into the 90s much of the training at the Defense Mapping School involved the use of heavy base plant equipment like large printing presses.  Even the Army was still using large, heavy Heidelberg SOR offset presses for map printing.  This equipment could not be easily or cheaply moved from Virginia to Missiouri.  Much of it was no longer manufactured so it wasn’t like the Engineer School could just go out on the market and buy new equipment so the older stuff could remain in use back at Fort Belvoir.

Fast forward to the 21st Century.  The Army topographers are now called Geospatial Engineers and they long ago abandoned their old traditional map making ways for GIS software, digital data sets and plotters.  All you need to conduct topographic training these days are desktop computers and lots of bandwidth.  Apparently there was no longer any real need for these classes to remain at the NGA College (formerly the Defense Mapping School) at Belvoir.

The last class of Engineer Soldiers and the last class of Army topographers to train at Fort Belvoir have crossed the stage and received their diplomas.  A 97 year old tradition has ended.


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