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The surprising states where the Navy is well known, where it’s not and how Virginia Beach sailors help change that

The U.S. Navy flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, conduct a flyover during the naming ceremony of Vraciu Field at Naval Air Facility El Centro, California, March 9, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Schumaker/Released)
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South Carolina has a proud naval heritage dating back to the nation’s founding.

That military legacy was frequently referenced when the littoral combat ship USS Charleston was commissioned in its namesake city earlier this month along a waterfront that countless warships and submarines have sailed past.

“The city of Charleston has a rich naval history. So the fact we’re able to commission here is a great honor,” said Cmdr. Christopher Brusca, the Charleston’s commanding officer, during a ceremony attended by thousands. “The mayor gave me a key to the city, but I haven’t had to use it because it’s been nothing but open doors here.”

But despite the state’s longstanding ties to the Navy, research shows that South Carolina residents tend to know less about the Navy than most other states. Only 39 percent reported saying they know “some” or “a lot” about the Navy, putting the state on par with North Dakota, Kentucky and Arkansas, according to 2018 survey results provided by the Navy. Vermont led the country at 48 percent while Virginia came in at 45 percent. The national average was 42 percent.

The lack of knowledge in South Carolina may be tied to base realignment and closures in the 1990s when Charleston stopped being a fleet concentration area. While the area still hosts a nuclear propulsion training unit, warships no longer call Charleston home. The USS Charleston will be based in San Diego.

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But the Navy thinks South Carolina is still fertile ground to drum up public support for the sea service and to lure recruits. The Navy believes its best ambassadors are its sailors and is sending a major contingent to Charleston for a series of public events that start Monday. The events are part of a Navy Week outreach program that Virginia-based sailors are critical to in the eastern half of the United States.

The Navy considers this outreach program vital to helping maintain an all-volunteer force and public support for its mission. That support can translate into funding from Congress that drives much of the economy in Hampton Roads and supports the needs of sailors based here and on deployment around the world.

“Back in 1995, 40 percent of all youth in our country had a parent who served. Today that number is down to 15 percent. And so those natural connections that communities used to have, you know, with the military, with the Navy, those are going away,” said Rob Newell, assistant chief of information for the Office of Navy Community Outreach.

“The country doesn’t see us like they do the Army and the Air Force. And so it’s particularly challenging and it’s particularly important for us to have these programs to connect with the community.”

Even on the coasts, the Navy competes with other military services for attention. Both Carolinas are home to a large Air Force, Army and Marine Corps presence, but each has only a small Navy footprint. That footprint will be enhanced this year during Navy Weeks in Charleston and Wilmington, N.C.

While the Navy draws from throughout the fleet for participants, many of this upcoming week’s star attractions are based in Virginia.

The Norfolk-based Fleet Forces band will hold a series of concerts. Divers from Virginia Beach-based Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 will hop into a tank at the South Carolina Aquarium.

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“A lot of times the Navy Weeks try to capture that the Navy is more than just battleships, Navy SEALs and Top Gun. Sailors are on the ground and in the air — anywhere,” said Lt. Kristi Johnson, spokeswoman for Virginia Beach-based Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2. “We can really capitalize on the STEM component, have EOD robots, or underwater robots.”

Johnson said Virginia Beach-based divers also will visit schools throughout the Charleston area, from elementary to high school. That’s because Navy surveys suggests the service needs to start connecting with potential recruits before high school.

“By the time an individual turns 16,” Newell said, “60 percent have already completely dismissed the military service as a future option for them … So we’re educating these young people earlier so maybe as they get into high school they’re starting to think about the Navy as an option.”

This year’s Navy Week schedule also includes stops in landlocked areas like St. Louis, Oklahoma City and Boise, Idaho. Mountain states are frequent stops during Navy Weeks and it appears they’re working.

Surveys show that Idaho, Wyoming and West Virginia feel more favorable about the Navy than anywhere else, though residents in those states who say they know “a lot” about the Navy lag behind coastal areas with large Navy presences like Virginia and Washington. A Navy Week also is scheduled this fall for Charleston, W.Va.

Navy officials aren’t sure why, but Colorado stands out as one of the most knowledgeable states in the country about the Navy and one of the places where residents feel most favorable toward it. A Navy Week will be held in Grand Junction, Colo. in July.

All total, the Navy will hold 14 Navy Weeks this year and spend about $1 million for travel and other costs associated with the program. It just wrapped up its first week of events Wednesday in Mobile, Ala. Navy Weeks usually involve sailors who are originally from the area, naval aircraft, musicians, divers and a variety of community engagement events the service hopes will drum up large crowds and local media coverage. On special occasions, the Blue Angels or the Navy SEAL parachute team “Leap Frogs” also will perform.

A typical Navy Week consists of 75 outreach events that reach a live audience of about 150,000 and generate about 3.5 million media impressions, according to the Navy.

In the eastern half of the United States, there’s typically a contingent from Virginia. The Norfolk-based destroyer USS James E. Williams highlighted the Navy Week in Alabama. An environmental group from Norfolk-based Fleet Forces Command will participate in Wilmington, N.C.

The service uses a variety of criteria to determine where Navy Weeks are held, according to Cmdr. Linda Rojas, director of the Navy’s Office of Community Outreach. That includes public survey data, recruiting goals and other events the Navy can capitalize on like Mardi Gras in Mobile, among other things.

In South Carolina, the Navy wanted to take advantage of the recent commissioning of USS Charleston and a St. Patrick’s Day parade. The timing also worked out so the cruiser USS Hue City could make a port visit during the week.

Operational units like ships, divers and Seabees can only participate if a Navy Week fits within their training and deployment cycle.

Even then, Johnson noted, they can be called back to report for duty anytime the nation needs them.

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© 2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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