"Sugar Grove, West Virginia"
(Note: I was stationed at Sugar Grove between '95-'98, and much may have changed since I initially created/wrote the information appearing here.)
The name alone sure conjures up a lot of images. It certainly did for me. I immediately had reservations, and not the kind at a five star hotel. I had some unfounded stereo-types in mind when I first learned that I had received orders to West 'By God' Virginia. I soon learned that they were just that; 'unfounded'.
The base itself is small. Very small, with approximately 187 military members, and 91 civilians (back in '95-98) it's a regular microcosm of efficiency. The base has all the services you would expect a much larger base to have. Here in the wilderness the Navy has learned to be self sufficient. It's a tightly knit community of workers doing a spectacular job away from the fanfare of the big cities. The Air force presence started here back in January of 1995. The Detachment itself was activated in November of that year and there hasn't been a dull day since.
I was stationed (While serving in the USAF) at NSGA* (Naval Security Group Activity) Sugar Grove from October of 95' until March of 98', and I enjoyed every minute immensly. There were a few obstacles to overcome, and some re-adjusting to do, but it was well worth it.
What follows are excerpts from an article I wrote (back in 1996) for an Air Force publication known as "The Spokesman".
Editor's Note: Because of some security concerns, I've removed some information regarding Det 3
and NSGA's mission. The material which remains available here is somewhat dated.
Detachment 3, 544th Intelligence Group is a tenant unit, and reports operationally, to the Naval Security Group Activity (NSGA), located at Sugar Grove WV. The detachment is administratively controlled by the 544th Intelligence Group at Peterson AFB CO. The 694th Intelligence Group/Mission Support Squadron at Fort George G. Meade MD also provides administrative support to the detachment.
Officially activated in November of 1995, the Detachment consists of six personnel; one officer, and five enlisted. A Detachment Commander, Superintendent and four operators who handle mission requirements in support of operations at NSGA Sugar Grove. Detachment personnel are integrated throughout the Operations Department to ensure greater mission exposure and training opportunities.
Detachment personnel live and work side by side with U.S. Naval personnel at NSGA Sugar Grove. The base itself is located approximately three miles north of Sugar Grove WV. Situated in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, the base is a forested refuge from the din of civilization. Sugar Grove is nestled between two large National Forests, and hunting and fishing opportunities abound. The Potomac Highlands of Pendleton County contain some of the most scenic valleys in the U.S.
A day's drive from the biggest cities on the East Coast, the area has much to offer those assigned. The nearby town of Franklin boasts a small assortment of country stores where one can obtain all the necessities of life. The base even supports a small naval exchange (NEX). The base is currently undergoing an extensive upgrade to it's facilities. New barracks, housing, and dinning facilities, are being built. The Mountaineer Club and MWR services are comparable to those found at larger bases.
Detachment personnel participate in numerous local and off base activities such as; Adopt-a-highway beautification programs, volunteer tutoring with the community schools, the Navy's White Hat's association, base and county level sports programs, as well as additional activities which help create a feeling of being part of 'Team Sugar Grove'.
What one may find lacking in convenience and variety is more than made up for by the friendly attitudes of the local citizens. Activities abound which bring the base and the community together.
If you are in the military, and have received orders to Sugar Grove, I'm more than willing to offer you some advice via email. The base has changed since I was stationed there, but I doubt that the area has changed that much. Here is some information I have sent to others. It's something of a FAQ.
* FYI: The Navy transitioned many functions of NSGA (Naval Security Group Activity) to NIOC (Navy Informations Operations Command), when NSGA merged with NNWC (The Naval Network Warfare Command) back in September of 2005. This merger was part of a Chief of Naval Operations directed Naval Transformation strategy.
- Is this a remote tour?
If you're in the Navy, this is considered a choice tour. Something that many call a twilight tour. Many Navy folks look for a shore station such as Sugar Grove in order to retire. The cost of living is very low. The lifestyle is laid back and unhurried. The place is safe, secure, and secluded. A perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of places like Norfolk and San Diego.
In my 'Air Force' opinion, it was the remotest assignment I've served. I spent seven years in San Vito Italy, and three in Misawa Japan, but the Grove was more isolated than either of those bases. Sugar Grove may be in the good ol' U.S.A., but it's tucked away in a remote part of the country. Surrounded by National forests, and smack dab in the middle of a radio quiet zone. It's a long drive to find the accommodations that most Americans take for granted. While it was secluded, the natural beauty, small town charm, and naivete of the area more than made up for the lack of convenience stores.
- What is your opinion on base housing vs. living in Harrisonburg, VA?
On base housing is comparable to commercial housing in Harrisonburg, VA. The benefits are proximity to the base/site. Convenience; All the base facilities are within walking distance, Harrisonburg is 1.5 hour drive (approximately) to the base (one way!). Peaceful; no crime (to speak of), no traffic problems, no urban noises. If you've got kids, it's a very safe, controlled environment. Drawbacks: Too close to nosy neighbors. The base is watching your every move. Who comes to visit, when you come and go, how long the grass is, etc, etc..
As for off-base housing in the area. It's almost impossible to find a nice place. Most rentals are mobile homes and old farm houses. If you choose to live off base, but near the base, you'll have a hard time finding a nice place, but I'd recommend that over living in Harrisonburg. The rural/rustic cultural/environmental benefits outweigh the urban benefits of Harrisonburg's 'big city' atmosphere (in my opinion).
- Where is the closest medical care facility?
The base has a Corpsman stationed there, and a small clinic. The clinic is equipped with Distance Diagnosis equipment, and the staff is trained in its use. I found the little clinic well equipped to handle routine medical needs. A team of technicians and dentists visits the base regularly for dental work. Family members are treated well, and the close relationship with the staff (It's a very small base) makes the clinic less intimidating for younger patients.
The nearest full service military hospital is Bethesda, MD. I was referred there on many occasions (Had some surgery, and related eye appointments). That's where you'll end up going if you need a doctors care. It's a permissive TDY, but you get to take a USN vehicle. Bethesda's about a three hour drive, so find someone to carpool with, or pick out a good AM talk radio station for the commute. Bethesda's medical care is the best. The best I've ever received at a military hospital.
- Does base housing have cable TV, or allow satellite dishes?
The base had (when I was there) cable (very affordable), contracted with someone who ran a private cable business in Brandywine (20 minutes away). They didn't allow satellite dishes on base when I was there (I have no idea why). There's a drive-in theater in the area (outside of Franklin). I can't remember the name of the town/theater, but it was a fantastic summertime experience; not to be missed.
- What type of shift would I work there?
If you have a CTR/1N2 type Rating/AFSC, you'll most likely start out working shift work. When I was there we worked 12 hour shifts; 4 days on, 4 off, 4 mids on, 4 off. I liked it better than you're typical 12 hour shift schedule. The 4 day breaks give you the opportunity to really get away and explore. After you've been there a while, you may get the opportunity to work straight days. If you're not a 1N2/CTR I don't know what hours you'd be likely to work.
- We are Air Force: So, how is the relationship with the Navy? (I'm in the AirForce, and this question really only applies if you are too.)
I didn't have any problems with the Navy folks. We got along really well, despite their salty language! When I was there, we were directly integrated into the operations. The place was run like a joint assignment. More so than any other 'joint' assignment I've ever seen. I was even a member of the 'White Hats' association. Some MSgt's are even offered Chief induction while assigned to Sugar Grove.
If you're in the Air Force, you'll find that your MPF is quite far away. Fort Meade MD is about a 4 hour drive (one way), and trips there are deemed a TDY. If you need to take a cycle ergometry or WAPS test, be prepared to stay overnight. Luckily, you don't need to go there often. The Navy even provides transportation (Gov't vehicle) when you need to go as far as Bethesda or Fort Meade.
- How long a drive is it from Sugar Grove to Harrisonburg?
Ouch! It's a long drive. It's about one and a half hours. One way! And that's driving at safe speeds (The 'Top' end of the speed limit). Sometimes the mountain (Shenandoah mountain) is closed, and you'll have to drive around. That'll take another two hours onto your commute. Wait until the weekends (4-day break) to get groceries, and visit the Wal-Mart.
- What about shopping?
There is a small Shoppette on base, and the NEX staff go out of their way to carry whatever they can fit into the small store. It's somewhat larger than your typical 7-11, but you really can't call it a full BX/PX or Commissary by any means. The base also has a very attractive combined officer/enlisted Club. There are a few places to shop in the local area. Brandywine has a Piggly-Wiggly (expensive, fair variety, poor selection) and an actual 7-11 (only open 18 hours/day!). Franklin hosts a bunch of small retail shops. Hardware, restaurants, temporary lodging, barber, bank, baker, and a handful of other stores (Franklin has a population under a thousand). We found that despite the long drive (about an hour and a half one way), there was better selection, variety, and savings, to be found while shopping in Harrisonburg, VA.
- Tell me about the schools in the area.
The schools in the area are not the best academically, but they are very safe, and kids get a lot of one-on-one attention. Because of the one-on-one attention, these schools are equivalent of schools with a better academic curriculum. The schools also benefit from the proximity to and involvement with the base. Many military members volunteer time with the students, and many military members have children in the local schools.
Kim (my wife) and I had a fantastic time at 'the Grove'. If you like the outdoors you're in for a treat; otherwise, it's rather remote. In hindsight, I've found it to be the most remote of all my tours (We spent seven years at San Vito, Italy, and three at Misawa, Japan). There's flooding during the springtime, the summers are pleasant, the autumns are spectacular, and the winters are sometimes extreme. Mountain grades, and severe winters make four wheel drive vehicles a good idea.
Unfortunately, there are not very many job opportunities for family members. The nearest town is Franklin. It's the county seat, and the only town with a stop light for miles around. Franklin is a quaint small town with some little shops and a Mayberry atmosphere. The nearest city of any size is Harrisonburg Virginia, it's over Shenandoah mountain. Harrisonburg is a medium sized city, with shopping malls (Wal-Mart) and a college. My wife and I used to drive there to get groceries. It's a drive alright; appx 1.5 hours one way!
The good things about Sugar Grove are it's recreational opportunities, and small town charm. The folks are generally warm and friendly, and it's a great place to raise kids. One problem with the locals; some have racist views. I definitely observed some behavior and attitudes, that made me caution some of my coworkers and friends. There is a nearby Public School in Brandywine, where you can send your kids (If you have any). College opportunities are limited. There are a couple of schools in Harrisonburg, but aside from that, you'll have to use Distance Learning.
Hopefully this will help. If there's anything specific you'd like to know about please feel free to email me.