Conditions were somewhat spartan inside the newly constructed training building at the Keystone Local Training Area: concrete floor, folding chairs, metal walls with electrical conduit visible and no drop ceiling between the crowd and the sound of steady rain coming from the metal roof above. Spartan, but more than enough to provide some warmth and respite from the sloppy conditions evident throughout the rest of the nearly 500-acre U.S. Army Reserve center.
"Thanks a lot for making it out here on such a beautiful Army day," Maj. Gen. Mark Palzer said to a chorus of "hooahs" from the more enthusiastic members of a crowd of about 50 local officials and members of the Army Reserve's 458th Engineer Battalion. "The only reason we're indoors is because we had civilians in the group. You're our excuse for being indoors -- otherwise, we'd be out playing in the mud."
Moments later, Palzer and dozens of his camo-wearing comrades proved the truth of his sentiment, making their way outside to christen the refurbished 25-meter firing range nearby.
The occasion was a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Keystone, a facility that has a played a central role in the life of this sparsely populated region in the southern part of the county. Closed in 2012 due to the need for improvements, the site is back in business after an extensive refurbishment project last year by the 458th and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Busloads of reservists making their way onto the saturated grounds as the ribbon-cutting took place inside the new multipurpose building testified to the fact that Keystone LTA has returned to duty. Though it's a sight that has not been seen in seven years, it was nonetheless familiar to Doug Stevenson, Greenwood Township supervisor and roadmaster.
"This was my playground my whole childhood," Stevenson said, indicating his nearby house -- the same one he grew up in. "We are honored to have this as part of our community in Greenwood Township, knowing the importance of what goes on here."
Recalling the efforts of his father, Cecil Stevenson, who served as township supervisor for 36 years, to support the training area, Doug Stevenson expressed his appreciation to the military officials for the Army's commitment to the area.
"This could have been overlooked -- it could have been just a bunch of barren land," he said. "We want to see what's going to happen the next 30 years."
The very next thing to happen, once the indoor portion of the morning's events concluded, was the passing around of a three-gallon container of ear plugs before the trek to firing range. There, Palzer and five members of the 458th took aim with M16 rifles at targets 25 meters away and attempted to get the range off to a good start.
Returning his magazine to the distribution point moments later, Palzer was pleased.
"I hit the target with all 10 of mine," he said.
The firing range is sure to be one of the main locations of activity at Keystone. Reservists can qualify there on both rifle and pistol for day and night, and it can also be used for live fire familiarization of light and medium caliber machine guns. A small control tower is centered midway near the ranges 25 firing positions and covered bleachers stand nearby for the next group of shooters.
Keystone Local Training Area
Located off Mike Wood Boulevard, approximately 8 miles southwest of Meadville, the training center's history dates back to the 14,000-acre Keystone Ordnance Works facility that operated during World War II. In the early 1960s, the smaller parcel now in use was set aside by the Army for training, with gradual improvements made through the ensuing decades. After nearly a half-century of use by local military units, ROTC cadets and law enforcement agencies, the site eventually closed in 2012 due to the need for improvements, which were completed last year.
Pfc. Jared Jordan, 20, of Homer City and Sgt. Shawn Vigne, 31, of Johnstown headed to the bleachers after shooting in the first group alongside Palzer. Jordan, Vigne and others like them stand to benefit most directly from the reopening of Keystone. As members of the 458th, based in Johnstown, they are required to qualify on rifles once each year. In the past, they've traveled to Camp Dawson in Kingwood, West Virginia, where the unit paid to use a National Guard facility. Now reservists throughout northwestern Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio will be able to take advantage of Keystone for such training requirements.
Not only will that help save money, as Palzer told the crowd, but less time in cars and buses means more time spent on training.
"This can mean the difference between life and death on the battlefield of tomorrow," Palzer said.
It could even help on the battlefield of today. Vigne spent nine months in Iraq and Kuwait last year, he said, an experience that was especially rewarding because of the consistency.
"I'm glad I went," Vigne said. "You got to actually do your job -- being in the reserve you only get a couple of days in each month."
Shooting at Keystone offered a new experience for Jordan, who had only fired from a prone position during basic training two years ago, he said.
"This is the first time I've shot standing up," Jordan said as rain continued to fall. "I did better.
"They were mostly all in the middle."
This article is written by Mike Crowley from The Meadville Tribune, Pa. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.