NAVAL AIR STATION LEMOORE, Calif. — Tucked into the heart of central California's farm country, this West Coast hub of the Navy's strike fighter community has an image problem. And it needs to be fixed, fast.
It's a base with an image problem that needs to be fixed, and fast.
While the air station will see tremendous a significant growth over the next couple years, but Navy officials say many sailors are reluctant to select it the California base as home for a tour of duty — mostly because of its rural location where the base is located and vague fleet rumors around the fleet that's it's an undesirable place to call homeabout the base that won't stop.
Most sailors would be hard-pressed to locate it on a map, said Capt. Monty Ashliman, commanding officer of the base, in an April 29 interview with Navy Times.
Now he and other Navy officials are actively working to turn around the reputation of this little known, little understood base.
Ashliman, who took command in June 2013, is preparing the base — selected last year as the Navy's first home for the F-35C joint strike fighter — for one of the biggest plus-ups of any Navy base will experience over the next few years.
"In two years, this place gets 3,000 people bigger, said Capt. Monty Ashliman said., commanding officer of the base, in an April 29 interview with Navy Times. "That's about a 30 percent increase, and that's significant."
And that number just includes the active-duty personnel who will be arriving, not the thousands of dependents who will undoubtedly accompany them.
"Our child development center, our schools, the schools out in the community, housing on base, and other base facilities ... that's a significant increase and we need to make sure we have the capacity to we need to make sure we can absorb that growth," he said.
Roughly 7,200 military and 1,300 civilians now work at Lemoore, and almost 11,000 military dependents call it home.
Strike Fighter Squadron 101, the F-35 fleet replacement squadron, is expected to relocate to the base from it's current home at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, beginning in January 2017.
In addition, two more strike fighter squadrons, VFA-136 and VFA-11 will move from Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, in June 2016 and January 2017, respectively, bringing even more aircraft, personnel and family members to the base.
To handle this influx, changes at the base are either underway or being discussed and planned, and Ashliman says it's his job to show Navy officials where and how the base needs to grow to accommodate the new arrivals.
Once the plus-up is complete, NAS Lemoore will have nearly 60 percent of Navy strike fighter airpower, a megabase worthy of the "master jet base" moniker it's had since it was designed.
The feel of the place
Lemoore has one of the most unique designs in the Navy, as it is actually two bases in one.
The mMain side of the base houses all the administrative functions, housing, recreation and medical facilities. Four miles to the northeast is the operations side of the base, where the runways and hangars are, along with some smaller medical and dining facilities and a small gym, too.
But it's this design, and the fact the base is surrounded by miles of farmland, that makes it good for training strike fighter crews.
"From a strict professional standpoint, I think it's the best air station in the world to prepare aircrews to go out to aircraft carriers," Ashliman said. "We have here what I like to call unimpeded training."
Because of tThe base's remote location, away from any and and he fact it's not near any densely populated areas, allows the Navy the ability to do things it simply can't in conduct business in a way you can't do in fleet concentration areas, he said.
"Our air traffic patterns and how we do operations around the airfield is exactly how we conduct operations around an aircraft carrier at sea," Ashilman said. "You don't get that anywhere else in the Navy."
NAS Lemoore has all the amenities a sailor would expect on a base of its size.
Photo Credit: Mark Faram/Staff
The baseLemoore has all the military base amenities sailors would expect:, find anywhere in the Navy with a an exchange and commissary; a military hospital; morale, welfare and recreation facilities, and a very robust off-duty education programs available to those stationed here, all packed into the base's main side compound.
The 66,000 square-foot facility includes two college-size basketball courts, large weight rooms with the latest gear, exercise rooms and athletic fields used by many sports leagues and more than 20 fitness classes each month.
"The feel of the base is more like an overseas base because of the remote location," Ashliman said. "The community here is very tight knit, and families of deploying squadrons have a very robust support system around them in a way you don't find in other fleet concentration areas."
Because the median price of an off-base house is just $175,000, many families choose to purchase homes in the nearby towns of Lemoore and Hanford, but with 1,630 on-base homes — 1,436 enlisted and 194 officer units — there's plenty of housing for those choosing to stay on base, too.
About 40 of the units date to the 1960's, most of the base housing is less than 12 years old and meticulously maintained. Units range in size from two to four bedrooms and the housing areas have community centers which routinely have family events scheduled throughout the month.
"It's high-quality housing with a very small town feel," said Tom Brown, who manages base housing for Lincoln Military Housing, which manages the units under the military's public/private venture agreement with Lincoln Military Housing. Brown said. "Cost of living is low and your money goes further here."
Although housing stays full most of the time, waits are relatively short, from one to eight months, Brown said. And with miles of leased farm land owned by the government surrounding the base, there's room for expansion, something many at the base think will be necessary with the influx of the three new squadrons.
"It's a possibility, it's being talked about," Brown said. "But nothing is final, and it will be based on need and necessity."
The housing stays full most of the time according to Tom Brown who manages base housing for Lincoln Military Housing, which manages the units under the military's public/private venture agreement. But unlike some bases, waits are short, ranging from one to eight months, depending on family size.
The median price of an off-base house is just $175,000, but there's now plenty of quality housing on base. Navy officials are preparing for a large influx of residents.
Photo Credit: Mark Faram/Staff
A big plus for military families are the two California public schools that are located on the base, too, both of which are in the top 10 percent of all schools in the state and offer education up to the middle school level.
Arguably the duty at the base is toughest for the most junior sailors who don't have cars and are stuck on base. Ashliman said it's the command's responsibility to ensure that there are adequate facilities on base for these sailors, who live in the barracks, so they to alsohave places to relax during off hours.
"The biggest things are communicating to our sailors what's available on base," he said. "And then we have to deliver on that and be open when we say were open. If we say something is open until 2100, then we don't close the door until then, even on a slow night."
Rumors and misconceptions
Still, Navy officials say Personnel Command has a tough time selling orders to the base, mostly because it's not located in a fleet concentration area, so many pass on applying for orders there.
"You're right about the image, whether it's from the service member side or the family side," Ashliman said. "It's not that there's a lot of negative things floating out there about Lemoore, it's just that to most people, it's a big unknown," Ashliman said
Even the skipper himself says he wasn't very familiar with the base himself when he was selected for command after spending most of his flying career on the East Coast at Oceana.
"The great percentage of folks who say they don't want to go to Lemoore can't tell you why," he said. "If you ask them their reasons, they don't have direct knowledge, they've simply 'heard things.' "
What stops many people is the fact it's not in a fleet concentration area such as Norfolk or San Diego, he says, and even if a sailor hasn't been to either, they know they'll be living in a large area where everything they will need is readily available.
It's because of the rumors and misconceptions that Ashliman and some of his staff traveled to Virginia Beach to talk to the two Oceana squadrons and educate them about his base and what it offers.
"It's not like the Navy is stationing you on the moon," he said. Ashliman, "Most people's knowledge of NAS Lamoore isn't first hand — I can't tell you how many times people lead off their comments about the base with the 'I've heard' line, and then you come to find out they really don't know where it even is."
He urges sailors up for orders to research Lemoore and see for themselves what the base and the area have to offer instead of relying on fleet scuttlebutt about the base. Many of those who do take orders opt for the geographic bachelor gig, leaving their families behind in Norfolk, Virginia, or San Diego.
And oOf those who do take orders, many of them opt for the geographic bachelor gig and leave their families in Norfolk or San Diego and spend their tour commuting when the can from the base back to their families.?
"By and large it's our senior folks who have heard the rumors and don't want to come here," Ashliman said. "If you make that decision because that's really the best decision for you and your family, that's fine," Ashliman said, but if you are making that decision only because you don't want to go to Lemoore and you've never been here, boy are you missing out on a great opportunity."
Such was the case of Chief Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) (NAC/AW/SW) Eldukl Ngiraingas, a 19-year veteran who spent an initial tour at the base as a geo bachelor and commuted back to San Diego on the weekends.
"I never really got the feel for the place because I was either working on base or was commuting to see my family in San Diego," he said.
But then he and his wife, Rizalina, a first class air traffic controller, got a dual military three-year tour at the base and moved up with the family.
"It changed my perspective about the place, bringing my family," he said. "This is a great place for families to come, it's a small-town environment and very safe, base housing is great and it's very affordable to buy a home here and live off base, too."
The pace of life in and around the base is slower than in fleet concentration areas and Ngiraingas and his family would stay, but he's about to retire and his wife is up for order, so they'll be moving on, but with fond memories of the base and area — wishing they could stay.
"Duty here is one of those hidden gems the Navy has to offer," Ashliman said. "You don't run across too many folks who don't like it once they're here and some, but not all, leave here kicking and screaming."
Location, location, location
Many, Ashliman says, believe the base to be in the desert and have no idea the base is actually in California's central San Joaquin Valley and really a stone's throw from everything the state of California has to offer.
Ashliman himself didn't have a true picture of the base when he took command since June, 2013. He'd visited the base on temporary orders, but hadn't spent any real time getting to know the facility and the area.
Nearly 15 of his 25-year career has been spent in flying billets at Naval Air Station, Oceana, and if he'd not been picked as the base CO, he said he'd have missed out on a chance to experience how unique and special a place Lemoore really is, he said.
"Instead of thinking this place is in the middle of nowhere, you come to realize it's in the middle of everything, with a one to three-hour drive to most of everything California has to offer," he said.
For those who like the outdoors, the Sierra Nevada mountains, with the famous Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks, are just over an hour away. It's also within easy reach of wine tasting or West Coast beaches you could want -- an hour and a half and you are there.
"If you want the big city hustle and bustle, two and a half to three hours away is San Francisco or Los Angeles," he said. "All those things, if they're an hour or two away, they are always an hour or two away because there's no traffic here.
"At Oceana, it might take you 20 minutes to drive somewhere, but most times it's due to traffic where as here if you want to go to the town of Hanford, it takes you 20 minutes but only because of the distance and it's always going to be 20 minutes.
"This is probably the most busy and stressful job I've had, yet it's probably the best and most enjoyable personal time I've had in the Navy — the family time here is just out of this world."
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.