GROTON, Conn. — Several times a year, wives and children of Navy submariners make a pilgrimage to the Eastern Point Beach or Avery Point to greet the submarines returning home from long and dangerous months of patrolling the seas. It is a ritual that goes back over 80 years, and for much of that time, the movements of these silent vessels were such a tightly kept secret that families had no idea when their men might return.
As recently as the early 1990s, locals say, rumors of a dorsal fin sighted at the mouth of the Thames River could prompt some women to leave their jobs, pull the kids from classes and head for the shoreline.
“It is just in the blood of this place, and for all those years of the Cold War, when the rest of the country thought they were at peace, this place was in the middle of a war,” says Bud Fay, owner of a combination lunch counter/laundromat near the Groton submarine base, which the Pentagon has targeted for closure as part of a plan to streamline and reorient the military’s infrastructure. “You’re talking about generations of people here, a way of life. And now Washington wants to just throw that all away.”
Across the Northeastern United States, and in New England in particular, bases and support facilities which in some cases date to the Revolutionary War are slated for closure. Communities are bracing for the loss of thousands of jobs, both civilian and military. In southeastern Connecticut alone, where Groton has been the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet since 1912, the Pentagon forecasts job losses at about 7,000 if recent recommendations to move the bases' functions to Norfolk, Va. are adopted by Congress this fall.
But it won’t be jobs alone that suffer. As the military struggles to reshape itself from a force aimed at checking Soviet power to one designed to fight smaller, less conventional enemies, those who study the military and those with deep roots inside it worry that the loss of a palpable military presence in some parts of the country could further deepen recruitment problems. In the longer term, they say, the loss of bases and day-to-day contact with military personnel could even alienate some parts of the country from the armed forces.
“An important part of the military in America is the sense that it is ‘our’ military,” says Boston native William Turcotte, the professor emeritus of the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
Turcotte, whose Navy career began in the late 1940s after he attended the U.S. Naval Academy, added: “It would be a shame if, in entire regions of the country, a kid could grow up and never see someone in uniform.”
Demographics and a ‘demilitarized zone?’
If that sounds far fetched to some, it doesn't in New England, where the Pentagon's plan would shutter the three largest remaining bases in the region: Groton, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on the Maine/New Hampshire border, and Otis Air Guard Base in Cape Cod, Mass. Taken together with other local closures, some 14,000 jobs would disappear, most of them migrating to the South.
Beyond the economic impact, some fear the passing of an important part of the region's heritage as well as cultural and political links.
“There has always been a palpable sense in this community that you were part of the military, even if you were not,” says Catherine Cook, who represents the Groton area in the Connecticut state senate. “You know that 40 percent of the children in Groton’s public schools are the kids of active duty military? Kids here see in the Navy a very definite career path, but now they’re seeing bases targeted for closure in their hometown, and all over the region. That’s got to do something to recruiting.”
In fact, those who study the military’s recruitment and demographic makeup say the armed forces are drawing personnel, and especially the officer corps, from an ever decreasing circle of the American population.
“The typical American military officer today is southern, white, conservative, likely to self-identify with the Republican Party, to be quite religious, and increasingly he’s likely to be an evangelical Protestant,” says Prof. Michael Desch of the Bush School of Public Diplomacy at Texas A&M. “That is a stark difference from 20 or 30 years ago, when the military looked a lot more like America at large.”
The military’s own data has tracked this phenomenon for years. Internal studies of the demographics of the U.S. armed forces in fiscal year 2002, for instance, indicate that New England and Middle Atlantic states (New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, accounted for about 25,000 new recruits. The states of the old Confederacy, meanwhile, with about twice the population of the New England/Middle Atlantic region, nonetheless produced three times that: more than 75,000 enlisted recruits. And, according to Desch, the disparity is even greater in the officer corps.
“I am worried about a military not broadly representative on a number of issues of the larger American population, and that includes not drawing from regions like the Northeast and New England,” he says. “The data I have seen makes a pretty overwhelming case that the military is becoming extremely ‘distinct’, not just in political views but also in geographic way.”
‘North/South’ and ‘surface/sub’
In a country where talk of the Red state/Blue state divide is only ever a cold beer away, the demographic trend in the military, coupled with the particular hit New England is taking in the latest round of base closings, has raised some hackles here. Newspapers around the region have decried the plan as a vengeful move to punish those states who voted for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. in last year's presidential elections. The Pentagon has pointed out that, in fact, President Bush's state, Texas, is among the states that would lose the most jobs.
Among those attending was Rep. Thelma Drake, R-Va., whose state includes the giant Norfolk Navy base where Groton's subs would move. Speaking to local reporters, she was greeted with skepticism when she insisted that she would only support the move of thousands of jobs to her Virginia constituency if it made national security sense.
"There is a bit of a North-South thing going on here," says Cook, the state senator, who watched the news conference. "I can say things that these folks can't, I guess. I just think that this decision is being taken for the wrong reasons, and that after all the sacrifice and service this community has given the Navy, we should be treated a bit better.
"But," she quickly added, "I don't think the fight's over yet."
For Bud Fay, expecting sympathy or thanks from the Pentagon is not part of the plan. A spry 77-year-old veteran of the Navy's cargo fleet -- ("I spent my Navy career praying I'd never see a submarine," he quips), Fay says national security is the reason Groton must stay open.
"This is a center - no, the center of excellence in the construction of nuclear submarines," he says. "Are they useful against Osama bin Laden? Perhaps not as useful as some weapons. But we can't see into the future, and moving this base would not just disperse the Navy people here, it would disrupt [sub maker] Electric Boat and all the subcontractors around here who have produced the greatest subs in the world for the past 50 years."
Fay takes a break to make change for a man in Marine Corps fatigues with a basket of laundry under one arm and a toddler under the other. "This isn't your average, transient military town, you know," he says. "We don't see the difference -- military, civilian. Submariners are a different breed, and a lot of them are lifers. And that made them stay here even after they got out."
Asked whether he really feels he can resist the Pentagon's wishes, Fay answers with the words of another New England sailor: "I have not yet begun to fight."
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