If you thought the Navy left town when they closed the base and shipyard in 1994, think again.

Inside the gates of the Naval Weapons Station sits an outfit called SPAWAR, an acronym that stands for Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, and Charleston is the center of its Atlantic operations.

All told, more than 12,000 people work in this command dedicated to supporting our armed forces all over the world. That number includes 3,100 civilians, 107 military personnel and more than 9,000 contractors, with as many as a thousand deployed around the globe at any given time.

Navy Capt. Bruce Urbon, an engineer by trade, commands this unit and knows most people have little knowledge of what goes on behind the gates. For good reason. Much of what they do is classified, meaning secret, meaning don't ask.

"We're an engineering command that works with a broad base of customers, including other government agencies, to define and develop information systems and solutions," Urbon said. "We're also the number one employer in the state of South Carolina for electrical engineers."

Internet cafes

Seventy-four percent of SPAWAR employees are engineers who work on some of the most sophisticated equipment in the world. Most of it you and I would never comprehend.

But we all understand the importance of a phone call home.

One of the most visible things these people do is supply Internet cafes in places like Afghanistan and Iraq so our soldiers can stay in touch with their families back home.

So far, they've established 811 of these electronic portals that make deployment a little more bearable.

Last month, for instance, more than 2.5 million calls were made through these cafes. That's a lot of I love yous, I miss yous and I'll be home soons.

Another thing people here do is help soldiers keep those promises by equipping their armored vehicles with the latest electronics just before they're shipped into war zones. So far they've tricked out 15,000 trucks. No small feat.

Urbon obviously is proud of his command and what his people do to support the global war on terror. And don't forget, it is a war.

"Sending folks into a hot area of the world is dangerous," Urbon said with a seasoned detachment that becomes a veteran naval officer. "But we take full measures to make sure our folks are protected and as safe as possible."

Growth industry

Truth is, the Navy has a bigger economic footprint in the Lowcountry now than ever before, thanks to SPAWAR and other missions hosted behind the fences in Goose Creek.

And at least for now, the recession is kept outside of the security gate. "We're hiring engineer- and technical-oriented folks," Urbon said. "It's a pretty skilled work force."

Average age in the group is 44, younger than you might expect. And they're well paid, with entry-level jobs starting at $50,000 a year.

But most go about their business quietly, bringing $4.4 billion into the local economy each year.

Each mission they support, from Afghanistan to Antarctica, is billed to the agency, whether it's the State Department or Homeland Security.

"It's a growth industry," Urbon said, without adding details about the future. "I foresee growth in our business."