For most of our time in the military, I thought most Army posts were landlocked acres of motor pools and training areas, unless you were lucky enough to be stationed in Hawaii. It seemed the most exotic postings you could hope for, to have a chance to see a coast, were Ft. Lewis, Ft. Stewart or maybe the Pentagon. That was until we were assigned to the Army’s gem of a post.
I’m talking about Fort Monroe, the longest active base, first an artillery school then home to TRADOC, sitting at the mouth of the James River and Chesapeake Bay. I knew nothing about this oldest and possibly littlest Army post until we crossed the bridge from the town of Phoebus and drove through the main gate. We had done a drive through a few years earlier so dad could show his kids where he came on TDY and where he got the best hoagies ever. Now we were going to be living on the fort which boasted a water-filled moat, a lighthouse, two-mile sea wall walk, and its own private beach. After Ft. Hood, two tours at Ft. Polk, two tours at Ft. Leavenworth, among others, we were in a paradise.
We quickly experienced why the post was nicknamed “Resort Monroe.” Arriving in the summer, we enjoyed Thursday night concerts by the TRADOC band at the water-side Gazebo park, weekends spent at the Bay Breeze beach, Sunday brunches with a bay view, fishing and boating at the marina. My kitchen window caught the beautiful sunsets reflecting off the inlet and the marina’s sailboats. For the first time, washing dishes became a pleasant chore. I got to enjoy that view for 4 years.
We toured the Casemate Museum to learn more about the history of the post and area, and what a rich history it is. Some of the earliest settlers to America stepped ashore at Fort Monroe before heading to Jamestown. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler changed the lives of slaves throughout the area during the Civil War, giving safe harbor to escapees at the Fort, hence its name 'Freedom's Fortress.' Jefferson Davis was imprisoned in the Casemate after the war. The artillery batteries stood ready to defend the coast during both World Wars.
But now the Army’s oldest active fort is no more. Designated for closure in the Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2005, Fort Monroe was officially decommissioned in September of 2011. On a recent visit, I saw that all the buildings are still there, but are now mostly empty. The Fort Monroe Authority is handling the transition and has made some housing available to military personnel stationed in the area. So a few families are getting to enjoy a bit of “Resort Monroe” living. They’ve leased the Bay Breeze conference center and beach to a private restaurateur to keep it open. But nothing says change more completely than seeing an “Office Space Available” sign in front of your spouse’s old office building.
While the Army has lost its gem, the Fort is still a beautiful place to visit and makes a great long-weekend get-away from the DC area. You can take in the history at Monroe and the Casemate Museum, visit the Yorktown Battlefield, and Monitor-Merrimac Museum in Newport News to relive the battle of the ironclads. The transportation museum at nearby Fort Eustis is also a fascinating stop. And of course you can visit Busch Gardens which is offering its Salute to the Heroes program with free park admission for military members. Military lodging is available at Eustis, Langley AFB and even Oceana Naval Air Station. Plan a trip soon before the ‘gem’ becomes too faded.