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SC's military and political leaders blindsided by report that Parris Island could shut down

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A drill school instructor teaches a candidate at Parris Island on April 25, 2019. A report speculating the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island could shutter has caught South Carolina leaders off guard. File/Cpl. Andrew Neumann/U.S. Marine Corps/Provided

A report speculating the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island could shutter has caught South Carolina leaders off guard, and they're promising to do all they can to stop the historic training base from closing. 

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger is considering a plan to close its two existing boot camp locations — Parris Island and San Diego — and have all recruits report to a new base where men and women would train together.

The news was first reported by Military.com late Thursday. 

Berger's option comes as the branch has not met a congressional mandate to make its East and West Coast depots ready to support gender-integrated training in the coming years.

Female Marines have trained on Parris Island since Feb. 23, 1949, but platoons have not been fully made co-ed. In January, Parris Island announced it would place one female platoon into the previously all-male 3rd Recruit Training Battalion during boot camp. It was considered one step toward meeting the requirement.

The South Carolina base was given five years to make training equal for men and women with the passage of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. Berger wondered if it made financial sense to spend money on the existing bases or to consolidate them.

"Nothing, the way we're organized right now, lends itself to integrated recruit training," Berger told Military.com. "If that's our start point — and it is — we have to get to a place on both coasts, or at third location or whatever we end up with, that ... there are male and female recruits around."

In addition to playing a major role in South Carolina's history, identity and military community, Parris Island, near Beaufort, is a significant economic driver for the state. Most notably, many South Carolina leaders at the federal, state and local level were not aware of conversations to shut down the base, indicating they were caught off guard by the news. 

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Charleston Democrat whose coastal district includes the military base, was unaware of the conversations about Parris Island, learning the news from the Military.com report. He promised to do anything he could to stop the depot from closing.

"Our Lowcountry military bases are so important to our culture, economy, and national security," Cunningham said on Twitter. "That’s why I fought to pass an amendment to protect them from BRAC and I’ll fight like hell to keep Parris Island."

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who is tied to a lot of military happenings in the state, was not aware of the plan either, according to his office. He took to Twitter late Friday to speak out against the move.

"If you’re looking to save money — let’s start with cutting those people who think closing Parris Island is a good idea," Graham said on Twitter. "Anyone in the Navy or Marine Corps thinking about closing Parris Island has limited growth potential."

Similarly, Sen. Tim Scott said on Twitter "The heart of the United States Marine Corps beats on Parris Island, and Beaufort County has proudly welcomed recruits from all over the country for generations ... Parris Island will not close."

Parris Island was first used by Marines in the 1890s. Since then, thousands of young men and women have come through boot camp there to earn the title of the few and proud.

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In addition to contributing to national security, the nearly 20-square-mile island has brought large amounts of financial stimulus to the state. Around $739 million in economic activity annually is generated by the Recruit Depot. This is associated with approximately 6,130 jobs and $344 million in labor income. 

Gov. Henry McMaster was also unaware of the conversations happening about the base. He promised Friday to do anything in his capacity as well to keep the gates open. 

“Parris Island’s historic and economic significance is woven into the very fabric of our state and the Lowcountry," McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said. "Simply put, there is nothing Gov. McMaster won’t do to protect Parris Island and its status as one of the best military training installations in the world.”

The Governor's Office reported the state's Military Base Task Force has been activated and will meet Thursday morning at the University of South Carolina Alumni Center in Columbia with federal, state and local officials. It was dubbed "a commanders briefing on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island." 

The task force, the state body that acts as a liaison between the Legislature and Department of Defense installations, is under the umbrella of the new S.C. Department of Veterans' Affairs. The agency's leader, retired Army Maj. Gen. William Grimsley, also was uninformed of the Marine Corps' conversations regarding Parris Island. 

Grimsley said he's been aware of some past discussions about the Marines consolidating the East and West coast depots, but nothing has been as concrete or as direct as what Berger stated. 

Grimsley said Parris Island is a perfect location to train because it is rural and provides ample waterfront needed for training amphibious warriors. 

"This is the right place to train Marines," Grimsley said. "I'm not opposed to them consolidating, but they should consolidate the operations here in South Carolina. If anything, we should be growing Parris Island." 

Parris Island is located in Port Royal, close to the town of Beaufort. The area has rallied around the base and many small business owners ranging from restaurants, bars and hotels rely on the near weekly stream of graduation ceremonies to stay afloat.

Port Royal Mayor Joe DeVito knows how important Parris Island is. He said he shocked he wasn't kept in the loop. 

“I was surprised that we had to find out this way,” DeVito said. “We want to communicate to the Navy and the Marines that the history and location of that base is too important to close it down.”

DeVito said he plans to meet with leadership at the base as soon as possible. Likewise, Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said the report was alarming and that he plans to meet with the Town Council to formulate a response on actions that should be taken. 

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5713. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly is a political reporter based in Charleston. He also covers the military community and veterans throughout South Carolina. Previously, he wrote for the Courier Journal in Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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