by Susan Mikula Campbell
Whether it's helping to get an air show off the ground or the more serious business of keeping the air base open, the Niagara Military Affairs Council is always ready to serve.
Merrell Lane, chairman of NIMAC and an Air Force advocate with the Air Force Chief of Staff Civic Leader Program, was honored for that service this month at a dinner at Bolling Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C. He received the prestigious Air Force Distinguished Public Service Award from Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, and Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley.
A Wheatfield resident and local businessman, Lane helped lead the fight to avoid the closure of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station during Base Realignment and Closure Commission hearings first in 1995 and again in 2005.
His fellow NIMAC members are proud that Lane received the Air Force's highest award for public service.
"Just the fact that the base is still there is a testament to Merrell's dedication and work over the years," said John Cooper, NIMAC vice chairman, who has worked with Lane on base issues since the beginning.
For the two men, NIMAC is often like having an unpaid part-time job. In the instances when they were working to save the base from closure, they probably put in at least 30 hours a week, Cooper said. "We pretty much took time off from our lives and our jobs."
Although Lane's three-year term on the chief of staff's leader group is up, he is confident that NIMAC and the Falls base "still will have access to the chief of staff and the secretary of the Air Force through the contacts we have made over the years."
This is still important since BRAC could be looking for more bases to close in coming years. Lane and NIMAC plan to continue to work for additional construction at the base and expect Congresswoman Louise Slaughter will continue her strong support for federal funding for those projects.
"We have a strong position to keep the base open, yet it does happen," Lane said. "The chief of staff did say that he felt there are too many bases. Over the next few years, we'll find out, I guess."
NIMAC also will continue to fight for the $17 million flight line operations building at the base. The funding for that project was put on hold when the president asked for a $50 billion cut in the Defense Department budget this year.
"It just makes sense to have the two units (the 107th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard and the 914th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve) in one building," Lane said. "It should be a savings to taxpayers."
Meanwhile, NIMAC, like other groups and municipalities in the state, is facing its own budget crunch. It's supported by Niagara County, local municipalities and memberships. While the local group is all-volunteer, it does have expenses, primarily maintaining a lobbyist in Washington. That lobbyist currently is working pro bono.
To join NIMAC, write to P.O. Box 231, Niagara Falls, NY 14304 or go to nimac.org.
Lane has spent a lot of hours volunteering for NIMAC over the years, but it has been very rewarding to support the men and women of the base and keep jobs in Niagara County, he said. It's also meant that he's met people and been places he otherwise would not have met or gone.
While in Washington, Lane and 30 other civic leaders from around the country met at the Pentagon to discuss local and national issues. They also had the opportunity to view the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at Dover AFB in Delaware. The country's fallen are honored and respectfully cared for there, he said.
"As a local funeral director, I was very impressed with the way they take care of the things they need to do. I was amazed at the job they do, the attention to detail, and the dignity they display for every fallen military member," Lane said. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who go through Dover and on to their hometowns."
In addition to bringing home his medals and certificate from his trip to Washington with his wife, Patricia, Lane also followed an old Air Force tradition of passing coins. He now has a commemorative coin from the chief of staff and Schwartz has one from NIMAC.