Cover Story

This summer, Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio will become the largest federal installation ever to be closed. Since the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process listed Kelly among the military installations to be shut down or reorganized, the jobs of 12,000 civilians have slowly evaporated through a series of layoffs. The last worker will walk off the site on July 13.

At its peak, Kelly did an $8 billion per year Air Force maintenance business, employing multiple members of the same family, many second- and third-generation workers, and thousands of others. But while the closing was painful, it was also a success story. During the layoffs, the base experienced reduced employee complaints, no workplace violence and one suicide. By comparison, another base closed in the same BRAC round witnessed 20 suicides in an 8,000-job reduction and numerous violent incidents.

What did Kelly's officials do differently? They hired Air Force psychologist Charlie Klunder, PhD.

Prevention intervention

When Kelly's top brass began planning for the closure, they acted on a suggestion from Air Force Reserves Col. James Campbell Quick, PhD, well-known for his work in organizational behavior.

"Basically, I said we wouldn't go into combat without good intelligence on our enemy, but we were going into a major industrial restructuring affecting the livelihoods of 12,000 people without good intelligence," Quick remembers. "Ninety-seven percent were going to get through this closing fine in the long run, but the big concern was for the 1, 2, 3 percent that really might do some damage to themselves or somebody else."

Quick advised Kelly officials to create a slot--no easy task in the military--for an independent psychologist to help the base employees who would struggle. In 1997, Kelly hired Klunder, who had been running health and wellness programs at nearby Brooks Air Force Base.

He was brought into a work force of 14,000 and told, "'We want to transition them with a minimum amount of disruption and violence,'" says Klunder. "From that, I had excellent supervisors who gave me a free hand."

Klunder set about compiling all of the available base and community services for civilians, from stress management to family supports. He created a base-wide working group of civilians and service personnel made up of chaplains, mental health professionals, the public affairs department, occupational medicine, the family support center, family advocacy workers, workers' unions and others. The group organized the available services by filling service gaps, which included increasing mental health services, and eliminating redundancies, such as combining programs that provided the same services.

But his No. 1 priority was getting to know the base and its workers. "I would just show my face on a daily basis, trying to get to know people," Klunder says. He found that some workers were in denial over the base closing, convinced that the decisions would be reversed. For others, the prolonged stress of the closure caused physical problems. Many workers faced family strains, conflicts with co-workers and supervisors, and substance abuse.

The working group found that one of the base's biggest strengths was an already-established peer referral system, in which employees were trained by the United Way to help their colleagues find family and health services. Klunder and his colleagues expanded this program, and for those workers who were having a particularly hard time, he and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Scheibler developed a new group--Transition Life Advisers (TLAs).

The military contracted seven TLAs, all social workers, to provide its civilian employees with more in-depth services and case follow-up. Supervised by Klunder, the social workers scattered their offices throughout the base: Close proximity to the people they served was important for the TLAs, says Klunder, because the biggest hurdle the program faced was earning the trust of employees.

"The hardest thing was breaking through the [perception] that we were outsiders," he explains. "To show that we were trying to do some good, and not reporters for management."

Initially, the TLAs did a lot of what Klunder calls "friend-making" contacts. Scheibler, the TLA program director, developed a plan to market the program while Klunder and his staff visited with employees daily, conducting discussion groups and stress-management workshops, and helping employees individually. One helped find medical equipment for an elderly grandparent. Others made sure a single mom whose son recently died had the emotional support she needed; they arranged for her co-workers to check in or have dinner with her and stopped by themselves on the weekends.

"That case probably paid greater dividends than all of the workshops we did," Klunder recalls. "Once people realized that we could do what we said we would, then things started taking off."

The TLAs referred workers to job training, financial and family counseling, and a host of other services, and then followed up with employees to make sure they were getting the help they needed, regardless of whether their problems were related to the base closure.

Just in 1999 and 2000, the TLAs saw more than 700 "critical care" clients:

  • 368 for family or work relationships, including 106 who were angry with supervisors or managers.

  • 187 for mental health needs, including 51 with thoughts of suicide, 56 for chronic anger and 16 with post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • 120 with medical needs.

  • 269 with financial, legal (divorce, separation, spousal support) or substance abuse problems.

Since Kelly's closure occurred in staggered layoffs of thousands, the months just before a layoff were often chaotic for Klunder and his TLAs.

"The tendency was to wait almost until the 11th hour to seek help," remembers Klunder. In fact, in the last two years of the program, 90 percent of TLA clients were last-minute cases.

A new role

Air Force officials estimate that Kelly saved millions of dollars in productivity during the closure process--and many attribute the savings to the TLA program. There were no increases in violence, no suicides once the TLA program was implemented, a decreased number of employee complaints and no litigation.

The savings from reduced formal workplace complaints alone, which require a lengthy review process, is estimated at $24 million to $33 million. That doesn't include the savings in worker productivity due to reduced employee stress, rewards that may have been given to plaintiffs at the end of the complaint process or the costs of lawsuits that could have been brought against the base if a violent incident had occurred.

And although Klunder points out that there's no sure way to prove the program directly affected cost savings, "It sure seems that we had a very positive impact on those outcomes," he says.

"This highlights a new and a different potential role for psychology in the military," says Quick. "This is the first time that we've seen senior leaders in military organizations take advantage of clinical psychological insights to help people through the [base closure] process."

And it's a concept that would benefit every workplace, says Klunder. "Basically, it can be modified to be used in almost any organization, whether it's an existing base, a closure base or the local supermarket."

In May, only about 120 civilians were left at Kelly, and Klunder began packing up his office to move across town to Lackland Air Force Base, where he'll coordinate the psychological evaluations of new Air Force recruits and provide crisis-intervention services. Looking back on his time at Kelly, he makes it clear that the entire base made an effort to help its employees: from civilian workers and supervisors through the commanding generals.

"It was a very rewarding experience," he says. "To see that the outcome was that people were replaced without the loss of life--we take that as a phenomenal accomplishment."