Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst recently hosted tens of thousands at its Air Show and Open House.
Visitors were awed by the speed and maneuverability of the F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, the capabilities of the Black Hawk helicopters and the precision jumping of the Army Golden Knights parachutists.
But the air show was more than a demonstration of the power and technology on the joint base. It was an important opportunity for visitors to get a sense of the overwhelming size and scope of New Jersey’s largest military installation and the quality and dedication of the men and women who live and work there.
A clear message emerged from the air show — Joint Base MDL plays a crucial role in achieving the nation’s strategic objectives and is vital to New Jersey’s economy.
Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst spans more than 42,000 acres in central New Jersey and stretches more than 20 miles east to west. It was formed by merging three separate military bases: McGuire Air Force Base, Fort Dix and the Navy Lakehurst Air Station.
It has a rich history — for instance, the first female military recruits entered basic training at Fort Dix, the tragedy of the Hindenburg took place at Lakehurst and Elvis Presley’s arrival at McGuire Air Force Base in 1960 after completing his military service caused a national stir.
The formation of the joint base is a bit of history itself.
In 2005, Congressional winds of cost-cutting and consolidation blew northward into New Jersey from Washington, D.C.
As part of a national initiative to realign and streamline military installations, it was recommended that three separate but adjacent military bases in New Jersey — McGuire Air Force Base (administered by the Air Force), Fort Dix (administered by the Army) and Navy Lakehurst Air Engineering Station (administered by the Navy) — be merged into a single joint base.
The goal behind this consolidation: enhanced coordination and efficiency among the service branches and improved response time on mission requirements.
The creation of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in 2009 was a significant milestone, as it marked the first joint military base in the country administered by three different military service branches. Today, JB MDL is also home to contingents from the Marines, Coast Guard, National Guard, Space Force, military reservists and civilian workers.
A Fortune 500 impact
The joint base has a substantial economic impact on New Jersey, equivalent to that of a Fortune 500 corporation.
The joint base:
- Pumps more than $3 billion in New Jersey’s economy each year;
- Ranks as the second-largest employer in New Jersey (after the state of New Jersey);
- Includes more than 46,000 service members and their families who live on the base or in neighboring communities and support hundreds of local businesses;
- Invests millions of dollars in research & development, which, over the years, has resulted in technological breakthroughs such as 3-D printing for airplane parts and electromagnetic aircraft launch systems.
A big city
The size and activities of Joint Base MDL resemble those of a big city. There is a vast physical infrastructure, including nearly 4,000 facilities and over $9 billion worth of assets.
With more than 88 mission partners (both military and civilian organizations), the base encompasses a wide range of responsibilities, including training, maintenance, engineering, logistical support, cybersecurity, environmental management and quality-of-life initiatives for its personnel (e.g., medical facilities, schools, theaters and recreational venues).
JB MDL has its own emergency fire and security teams, which, in addition to on-base responsibilities, support local communities when needed. For instance, fire brigades from the joint base helped contain and extinguish the wildfires that broke out in Manchester Township in April.
One of the most unique groups on the base is the “Explosive Ordnance Disposal” team, whose job it is to safely remove weapons, suspicious packages and aircraft explosive hazards on the base.
However, it gets calls on a regular basis from all over the tri-state area (from as far north as Niagara Falls) requesting the group remove weapons and unexploded military munitions found in excavation sites, open fields or along the Jersey Shore. As a result, the team now has a museum-worthy collection of weapons and explosives, the oldest of which pre-date the Civil War.
The mission of the joint base is to rapidly move troops, equipment and cargo to wherever in the world they are needed in order for U.S. military personnel to fulfill their missions.
The base has been doing this through two World Wars, a multidecade Cold War, military actions in Korea, Vietnam and, more recently, the Middle East, plus peacekeeping missions on virtually every continent.
To accomplish this, the joint base focuses heavily on training — more than 1 million people have come through JB MDL for training — and not just military people, but people from federal, state and local agencies.
In addition to military actions, the joint base consistently supports humanitarian missions around the globe in response to earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters and does the same in New Jersey following disasters such as Superstorm Sandy.
An exceptional demonstration of the base’s rapid response to a humanitarian crisis occurred when it provided a refuge for tens of thousands of Afghan people following the U.S. forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.
The refugees were housed in a facility dubbed “Liberty Village” on the grounds of Fort Dix. It was rapidly created by laying 300,000 tons of construction gravel for roadways and pathways, building reinforced tents and reconstituting military barracks for housing, opening schools and provisioning full-service health care facilities.
Eventually, these refugees were resettled across the U.S., and, today, barely any physical trace of Liberty Village remains.
One of the most significant challenges faced by the men and women who serve on the joint base — or on any military installation, for that matter — is the transient nature of their jobs. They are constantly on the move, relocating to different bases worldwide as their duty demands. Every few years, these dedicated individuals and their families must adapt not only to a new military base, but to an entirely new community.
Those arriving to serve at Joint Base MDL are confronted with the task of finding suitable housing, which proves to be quite a challenge in densely populated New Jersey. Additionally, like any other family, they need to find day care or appropriate educational facilities for their children, forge new friendships in their new surroundings and seek out recreational offerings that the Garden State has to offer, so they can make the most of time outside of duty.
Supporting those protecting us
In recognition of these challenges, organizations such as the Military Support Alliance of New Jersey seek to help the servicemen and -women of the joint base acclimate to their new surroundings and enhance the quality of their lives in any way possible.
The MSA and other like-minded organizations play a vital role in facilitating connections between members of the military and members of the local communities. This is done through social get-togethers or by various recreational activities, ranging from visits to local wineries and historic sites to attending one of New Jersey’s minor league ballgames.
Many New Jerseyans express support for our military service members, but are not sure what they can do to demonstrate that support.
One key thing everyone can do it visit the joint base website and social media sites to keep abreast of activities and accomplishments there.
It is crucial New Jerseyans know the contributions the joint base makes to New Jersey, so we can respond appropriately should the winds of cost-cutting and consolidation again blow into the state.
For those looking to be more actively engaged in supporting our troops, there are a variety of options available. These are just a few:
- Greet a new military family that has moved into your neighborhood and make them feel welcome;
- Watch local news and social media sites for notices about “meet and greets” where you can meet military service members;
- Sign up for a tour of the joint base — they are offered on alternate Fridays from March through November — these are group tours only and are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Inquire about tours at email@example.com.
- Support one of the many worthy initiatives underway at the joint base — two examples:
- The Base’s Spouses Club raises funds for worthy causes such as scholarships for children in military families;
- Hearts Apart, a program that creates social activities for those in service who are separated from their families.
There are dozens of other organizations and initiatives that exist to support those who selflessly serve and protect our nation. Reach out to the Military Support Alliance of New Jersey to find an initiative you would like to support, remembering that even the smallest gesture can create a great reward.
Ray Zardetto is a board member of the Military Support Alliance of New Jersey, a nonprofit organization comprised of civic and business leaders dedicated to promoting awareness of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and its importance to New Jersey, while also supporting initiatives that enhance the quality of life for the men and women who live and work there.