Military personnel from the Republic of Singapore are getting help finding places to live and local schools for their children from the Silverbell Patriots Committee, a coalition of political and business leaders in the Northwest.
Seventy-six military personnel from Singapore have been sent to the US since October for training on eight Apache helicopters, said Lt. Col. Gary David of the Silverbell Army Heliport, part of the Pinal Air Park which about seven miles northwest of Marana and used by the Army National Guard and several other agencies.
The Republic of Singapore bought the helicopters from The Boeing Company in Mesa for use in international missions and training.
While stationed here, the Singaporeans need houses for about 200 members of their families, healthcare and assistance with car insurance and the many other details of life in the United States.
Silverbell Patriots Committee President Rudy Graf said that is where he and nine fellow committee members come in.
The committee, in conjunction with the Marana Chamber of Commerce, hands out maps, directories of nearby stores and hospitals and gives briefings on where to find homes and schools to the troops from Singapore moving into Marana and surrounding areas.
The influx of new residents will be a boost to the local economy, said Kelle Maslyn, Patriots committee member and director of the Marana Chamber of Commerce.
"Anyone stationed out there is likely to come to Marana to live or shop," Maslyn said.
During a lunch meeting last June, Graf and former Marana Mayor Ora Mae Harn came up with the idea for a committee to support the Army National Guard across Southern Arizona, modeling it after what was formerly named the Southern Arizona Minuteman Committee Inc. in the Tucson area.
Harn was already active in the Minuteman, the group that helped persuade the U.S. Air Force in 1993 to keep F-16 fighter reserve fighter squadron stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Graf had a previous career as a helicopter pilot and an administrator at the Western Army National Guard Aviation Training Site at Pinal Air Park, before his current job as an investment representative for Edward Jones.
Harn and Graf soon tapped other community leaders for the committee including Oro Valley Mayor Paul Loomis, Pima County Supervisor Lionel Ruiz, Northwest EXPLORER Publisher Melanie Larson and Steve Halverson, president and CEO of Canyon Community Bank.
So far the group has funded one barbecue for the guard helicopter unit and is planning a golf tournament in the fall to raise funds for other projects.
The committee raises money for local charities and hosting dignitaries from Singapore. Military personnel don't have the budget to provide meals and momentos for visiting dignitaries, like a chief of staff from Singapore who visited May 16, or a Singapore minister of defense, who may visit later this fall.
The Patriots provide gifts from Arizona, like Katchina dolls and books filled with photographs of the local landscape, Graf said.
The committee also supports local nonprofit groups like WrightFlight, an organization that sends school children who improve their grades on free airplane flights.
Teachers and students in WrightFlight make an agreement that each student in the program will work to improve their grades in difficult subjects, for a reward of 30 minutes at the controls of a small airplane.
Fifty pilots volunteer their time in planes they own or rent to take local kids up for a flight. The locally-based program has expanded into Florida, North Carolina, Kansas, Texas and California, said Robin Stoddard WrightFlight executive director.
In the last 10 years 6,000 children in Southern Arizona have flown.
The Patriots can also provide the political smooth talking to bring military contracts to Marana and southern Arizona, which is forbidden for Army National Guard brass.
"We'll help them from a public relations standpoint," said patriot committee member Steve Halverson, president and CEO of Canyon Community Bank.
"Someone's got to speak up for WAATS and the community's got to be behind WAATS. Otherwise, if no one shows support, (a military contract) may go somewhere else. They'll say the community is not interested. That's what we do," Halverson said.
But the committee is also there to prevent what could happen if the Army National Guard base were threatened by city encroachment or more, said Ruiz, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force.
"We want to be proactive … so that if we're approached with closure or anything like that, we can take action against it," Ruiz said. "(WAATS) is an economic driver in the area and it's part of our national security."
All told, Singapore will buy 20 of the more recent model Apache helicopters by 2005, David said.
The Singapore military personnel, also called the Peace Vanguard Detachment by those on the base, will rotate into the Pinal Air Park for two-year training stints throughout the next 20 years.
Forty-three more mechanics and pilots from Singapore are scheduled transfer into the air base by April 2003.
The Silverbell Patriots Committee is still looking for new members. Call Graf at 742-7514 for more information.