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Will Marines close Beaufort County’s signature Parris Island? Here’s what we know

A road sign in Parris Island, SC, May 13, 2011. (DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen)

Marine bases at Parris Island and in San Diego have long needed updates, but Beaufort County learned Friday that part of the Marine Corps’ plan to revitalize itself could mean losing the local base altogether.

Although the news sent shock waves around the county, closing Parris Island is only one of several options the Corps is considering to adhere to a Congressional mandate that requires the bases to support co-ed training within five years.

A report late Thursday night on Military.com described the option from the Marine Corps that would close its two boot camps and direct all future recruits to a new co-educational base.

Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, off the coasts of Beaufort and Hilton Head Island, for over 100 years has been one of the foundations of Beaufort County.

It has been the bedrock of not only economic life, but of social life.

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When people think of Beaufort, they think of Parris Island.

“Parris Island is an institution in Beaufort County and is integral to making Marines. It has been for generations,” said Republican S.C. Sen. Tom Davis, who learned of the news Friday morning from a reporter.

If it were to close, and when, however, is still unclear.

In a statement to The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette, Capt. Joseph Butterfield, a Marine Corps spokesperson, was noncommittal. He said the Corps was “exploring all options to accomplish” the co-educational recruit training required by the new order.

“Due to a variety of limitations, neither Marine Corps Recruit Depots Parris Island nor San Diego are currently able to optimally train recruits in an integrated environment,” his statement said. “At this time, any remarks on courses of action are premature as we are simply exploring all options.”

In an interview with Military.com, Kate Germano, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who led Parris Island’s female 4th Recruit Training Battalion, said the Marine Corps should fully explain the reason why it’s considering moving boot camp away from the bases.

She told Military.com she worries that male Marines would blame women for the loss of tradition.

Some have called reports about the closure, which cite some of the Corps’ top leaders, a political ploy during an election year. Whether it is or not, a loss of Parris Island would change everything about Beaufort.

“It would be catastrophic,” said Robb Wells, president and CEO of the Greater Beaufort-Port Royal Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a crippling effect, if Parris Island were to leave. It’s been talked about for years as a worst case scenario. This is just confirming some of the fears we’ve had in the past. It would transform the area economically.”

Though Wells said the idea has been floating aound for years, most Beaufort County leaders contacted about the possible closure were hearing about it for the first time from a news reporter. It left some of them shocked.

Others were less shocked than confused.

“It’s a bit of a surprise,” Beaufort County Administrator Ashley Jacobs, who had already heard the news, said Friday morning. “It would be a real blow to Beaufort County’s economy, so obviously we’re very concerned about it.”

Economic impact

Wells said the coronavirus pandemic could be a good indicator of the impact the loss of Parris Island would have onthe county’s economy, but on a lesser scale.

The pandemic caused Parris Island to suspend Marine Corps graduations this year, typically a large source of tourism income for the county.

That has resulted in about a 30% loss of revenue to the Beaufort and Port Royal economies, Wells said.

“It’s a good indication of what would happen, but we’re only seeing it from a small window,” he said. “Years of this would be treacherous.”

He said the possible closure highlights the need for Beaufort and Port Royal to “diversify our tourism product to include sports and meetings.”

“That’s how we would, and should maneuver,” he said.

Ian Scott, president and CEO of the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the economic impact of Parris Island is “huge.”

“Parris Island is part of the fabric of the Beaufort region and has been for more than a century,” he said. “Being the community where Marines are made is a big part of our identity.”

Environmental risk

Gender integration isn’t the only thing affecting infrastructure at the depot.

As national leaders classify climate change as a national security threat, Parris Island’s coastal location makes it susceptible to hurricanes, coastal flooding and sea level rise.

Friday’s news comes as Beaufort County has topped the list of high climate change risks, according to an analysis released last week by ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine.

Neighboring Colleton and Jasper counties also made the list, which ranks counties across the country on how susceptible their residents are to “compounding calamities” due to climate change.

Parris Island, already remembered by recruits for its scorching temperatures and humid conditions, will have to consider climate change just as the rest of Beaufort County does – on a long term scale that weighs the risks of investing millions when climate change is set to impact the land where its storied history began.

‘Hypothetical at this point’

Dan Beatty, the chairman of South Carolina Military Base Task Force, said closing Parris Island and opening a new Marine Corp training depot “would take a considerable amount of time.”

“All that’s hypothetical at this point,” Beatty said about a possible closure.

He has reason to believe the base will remain open.

The Department of Defense is “investing heavily in Parris Island,” he said.

The defense department is currently spending $30 million for improvements to better train recruits and another $68 million is up for approval at Parris Island, according to Beatty. Already, all enlisted women are trained at the depot.

“It seems like the Marine Corp is forging ahead with improving what they have and making Parris Island a better installation,” Beatty said.

Other circumstances could keep the Parris Island training base open as well.

Beatty referred to a moment years ago when the Army considered closing Fort Jackson in Columbia.

That community was able to get feedback to the Army about the value and importance of Fort Jackson to the Midlands area.

The Army installation stayed open.

Whether the Marine Corp will take similar action in getting feedback from Beaufort, is “hypothetical at this point,” Beatty said.

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© 2020 The Island Packet