The military exercise was called "Trident Juncture" and involved 500 Army paratroopers flying nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean before successfully jumping into a NATO training area in Spain.
The jump was one of the highlights of the massive land, maritime and air exercise undertaken by NATO. More than 36,000 troops from over 30 countries participated, the largest training exercise since 2002.
But the paratroopers' insertion would not have been possible without the contributions of a group of KC-10 Extenders from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, which were able to refuel the paratroopers' transport planes over the Atlantic.
"Without us, other aircraft with less fuel capacity will have to land and refuel more often," Airman 1st Class Amy James, a boom operator with the 32nd Air Refueling Squadron stationed at the joint base, said in an interview with the Air Force News Service following the exercise.
Around the same time that Trident Juncture was wrapping up, U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-3rd of Toms River, was preparing to vote for a third time on a defense policy bill that would, among many other things, ensure that the joint base's KC-10 refueling jets would remain a part of the Air Force's arsenal for another two years and not become a victim of the broad mandated spending cuts known as sequestration.
For MacArthur, the 370-58 vote on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was the culmination of nearly a year's worth of behind-the-scenes maneuvering and arm twisting to get protections for the KC-10 tanker fleet signed into law.
The process began in early February, when MacArthur first authored language for the defense bill prohibiting the Air Force from spending money to retire or move the fleet. It's expected to end early next month, when President Barack Obama signs the final bill.
"You read in the paper that a defense bill gets passed, and people must wonder, 'Yeah, I remember reading about that six months ago.' But that's the process," MacArthur said after a recent appearance at the Laurel Creek Country Club in Mount Laurel, where he and Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st of Camden, spoke to Burlington County business leaders about their efforts to protect and enhance the joint base.
"It takes focus, preparation, a lot of persistence, and working with people in both parties to get it done," he said.
Norcross has proved to be the perfect partner. The former electrician and state legislator from Camden was elected last November as a replacement for longtime district representative Rob Andrews, who resigned in February 2014.
"There are 211 attorneys in Congress, but only one electrician," he joked during the event.
MacArthur brings a different background. Before running for Congress, the Republican spent most of his adult life as chief executive of an insurance firm he helped grow from a small New Jersey-based operation into a national corporation.
Although the two lawmakers have vastly different backgrounds, both speak often about their shared commitment to working across party lines in Washington.
"Both of us want the people of South Jersey to know that their representatives are working together across party lines to get things done," MacArthur said. "As a person from the private sector, I'm not just about appearances and messaging. I want to get things done to benefit the region."
In March, when MacArthur was looking for a co-sponsor to work with to get the KC-10 amendment attached to the NDAA, he immediately turned to Norcross.
Norcross didn't hesitate to sign on as co-sponsor. Although the joint base is outside his district, he described it as his "adopted" cause, and he pointed to the importance of the refueling mission at the installation.
"We have something that we do better than anywhere else in the world, and that's midair refueling. All the countries we work with ... we help them refuel," Norcross said, adding that MacArthur has been an ideal partner both with the NDAA and with a new bill Norcross sponsored to give veterans the option of receiving VA-funded care at local hospitals or medical offices.
MacArthur has signed on as the lead Republican co-sponsor on the bill.
"We understand that after Election Day, we're supposed to do our jobs. Part of that job is coming to an agreement to do different things," Norcross said.
Protecting the KC-10 fleet
So it was that the two freshman lawmakers found themselves together in late April during a marathon session of the Armed Services Committee, where committee members spent all night debating and voting on dozens of amendments to the NDAA, including the language to protect the KC-10s, which had become a target for possible early retirement to deal with hundreds of millions in mandated spending cuts required by the 2011 Budget Control Act.
The large tanker jets have been in the service since 1981 and carry over 356,000 pounds of fuel — more than any other aircraft used by the Air Force. But faced with having to make hundreds of millions in spending reductions to squeeze under sequester spending caps, Air Force brass began eyeing the KC-10 for early retirement, reasoning that the service's other refueling plane — the KC-135 — while older and smaller, would suffice until newer KC-46 tankers are built and tested. The first of those jets are expected to be ready by 2017.
A total of 32 of the 59 KC-10s in service are at the joint base. The other 27 are stationed in California at Travis Air Force Base.
The loss of the KC-10s would be a significant blow to the joint base. Over 1,000 jobs are attached to the KC-10s, and their loss would substantially weaken the installation's position for future rounds of base closures.
MacArthur described the planes as the "linchpin" of the over 80 missions on the sprawling military base.
"If you take it out, it gets easy to pick apart the rest of the base," he said.
With the future of the KC-10s threatened, MacArthur and Norcross made floor speeches in support of their amendment to protect the aircraft. Although their interests were parochial, both focused on the larger role the planes play in national defense.
Their amendment ended up being approved by a voice vote, and on May 15 the full House voted to approve the authorization bill with the KC-10 language intact.
A month later, the Senate approved its own version of the bill, and — despite efforts by U.S. Sens. Robert Menendez and Cory Booker to have it inserted — without the KC-10 amendment.
MacArthur said the setback prompted him to work with the two New Jersey senators to lobby members of the House-Senate conference, among them Arizona Sen. John McCain, to ensure the amendment was included in the final compromise version of the bill.
"It just meant I had to work behind the scenes as the House and Senate reached the agreement that it didn't get left behind," he said.
Not only was he successful in convincing the conference members to keep the KC-10 protection, but the language was tweaked to extend the protection from a one- to two-year prohibition against retiring the fleet.
The president's veto
Both the House and Senate voted again to approve the NDAA reported from conference, but the bill's future was far from certain, as the White House issued a veto threat urging lawmakers to rewrite the act.
The chief sticking point was the bill's $612 billion in spending. Although the sum was equal to what Obama and the Pentagon had requested, a substantial portion of the funding was coming from an $89.2 billion discretionary fund for overseas military operations that was not subject to sequestration.
Obama, who had called on the Republican-controlled Congress to reach an agreement to roll back the sequester to raise spending for both military and domestic programs, called the move a "gimmick." He wound up vetoing the bill on Oct. 22, marking the first time in over 50 years that a president had done so with the annual defense bill.
MacArthur was among a large group of Republicans that blasted the president's decision, arguing that the bill was written with bipartisan input and support, and that the action held the military hostage over what was essentially an accounting dispute. He vowed to lobby colleagues from both sides of the aisle to vote in favor of an override.
"I'll keep fighting for whatever's needed for the joint base and our national defense," he said following the veto.
The budget accord
A veto override vote was scheduled for Nov. 5 but was eventually scuttled after congressional leaders, meeting secretly with Obama during the last weeks of October, reached a two-year budget accord that would grant additional sequester flexibility for both the military and domestic programs.
MacArthur and Norcross described the accord as a breakthrough for Congress that would clear the way for the NDAA's final passage. They voted in support of the budget deal, as well as a new defense bill rewritten to align with the accord.
"I was disappointed (with the veto). But the good news is it forced us back to the table. We came up with a budget deal that set the table for us," Norcross said.
"Once we got that done, you could see the light at the end of the tunnel. ... But with the (budget) numbers settled, we can move forward," he said, adding that he was now confident the bill would be signed into law soon.
"A bill on the president's desk has my language in it for the first time. I'm really thrilled we've gotten it across the line."
Continuing to advocate
The fight for the joint base is far from over, though. Both New Jersey representatives promised to keep working to protect the installation's existing missions and convince military leaders to locate new ones at the post.
"How do you protect our base? Constant vigilance. Because every other congressman is looking for a mission on their base. They're always going to be coming after us. Tom and myself, we're ready for that," Norcross said.
The two lawmakers said helping the base obtain cheaper, reliable energy is on their to-do list, as is advocating for more federal funding for area schools where military children are educated.
Convincing the military to locate the newer KC-46 tankers at the joint base will ultimately be key. With that in mind, MacArthur is looking forward to hosting Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry at the base next month for a tour and meeting. The committee's staff will also attend.
"It's important," MacArthur said. "He's from Texas, so I want him to see the uniqueness of our base and have another champion for it."
Norcross, who was part of a congressional delegation that visited troops in Afghanistan last week, promised to be an active ally in MacArthur's advocacy for the installation.
"We're (Republicans) and (Democrats) for the election. But Tom and I both understand that afterwards it's about what we can do for the American people," he said.