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‘Too early’ to predict Marine Corps’ future on SC’s Parris Island, says base leader

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A U.S. Marine Corps officer told South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and other military leaders Thursday it’s “too early” to say whether it’ll shutter its boot camp on Parris Island — news that stunned state and local leaders after a report last month.

“What the commandant (Gen. David Berger) articulated is that we’re looking at all the things that are on the table,” said Marine Corps Col. Riccardo Player. “Are we looking at all options? Absolutely. It would be too early to say this is exactly what we’re going to do right now in 2020. … To limit ourselves to one course of action, to one avenue would be premature.”

The possible closure was first reported last month by Military.com, which said the Marine Corps was weighing plans to close boot camps on Parris Island — in Port Royal on the coast between Beaufort and Hilton Head Island — and San Diego, directing all future recruits to a new co-education base.

The location of a new base was not identified in the report. But it mentioned the costs of construction projects at the aging bases.

The depot employs about 6,100 people, but has a major economic impact outside of the base.

The Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce put its economic footprint at $739.8 million.

“It seems to me, it’s clear that Parris Island has all the advantages and none of the disadvantages,” McMaster said Thursday in Columbia at a news conference discussing the base.

But to reporters, the governor remained confident the Marine Corps would not leave the island though he said they are “alert.”

“We always have concerns about anything that remotely threatens the happiness and prosperity of our people,” McMaster said. “I assure you that we will do all we can to see, not only that our bases and capacities are not reduced, but they’re expanded.”

The rumored plans follow action by Congress last year when it passed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, which required the Marine Corps to fully gender-integrate its basic training. Women have been training at Parris Island since the 1940s, but it wasn’t until 2019 that the Corps’ training base reported its first-ever co-ed company graduate.

Each year, about 20,000 Marine recruits — male recruits from east of the Mississippi and all of the service’s female recruits — pass through Parris Island. Male recruits from the western half of the country report to San Diego. By the law, the Marines have five years to implement gender-integration at Parris Island and San Diego has eight years.

Asked why it’s so costly or difficult to enact the changes, retired Army Maj. Gen. William Grimsley — who heads the state’s Veterans’ Affairs office — said it’s a matter of integrating the battalions and training procedures and putting both into effect.

“The Marine Corps will work through this just as the Army’s done at Fort Jackson to be able to amalgamate men and women Marines together in the battalion,” said Grimsley, who lives near Parris Island. “They still keep separate sleeping and latrine orders, obviously. But they would train together full time. Everybody will do it their own pace and scale.”

Should the depot close, Grimsley said he expects there to be “a whole bunch of hoops” to jump through, whether through the legislative or executive branches. But Grimsley also urged patience.

“I think we all just need to take a step back, take a deep breath here, and realize that we all work through this at our own pace,” he said. “But I have absolutely no doubt that the Marines are fully committed to doing this the right way, in the right place.”

State Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, told reporters it’s no small task to “create that kind of culture.”

But she added that “South Carolina is military friendly. Beaufort, South Carolina, is noted as one of the most patriotic towns in the nation. … So, we’re going to be protective. We’re going to act quickly, and as you saw strongly at lightening speed to say not on our watch.”

Beyond the directive to integrate and before consolidation chatter began, observers had warned of Parris Island’s susceptibility to climate change.

Last year, a former base commander said that the Marines may need to eventually abandon the island because of rising seas and stronger storms. A 2019 government report concluded military leaders had not done enough to prepare for climate change.

Areas of Parris Island that now flood 10 days each year could flood 100 days of the year by 2050, according to the Center for Climate Security. By 2100, 75% of the island could flood during high tides, the group says.

“Parris Island is very important. It’s very historic too,” said Republican state Sen. Chip Campsen, whose Charleston district includes Parris Island. “I think we may need to make improvements, but we can make those improvements and it will remain attractive to the Marine Corps.”

Kacen Bayless and Kate Hidalgo Bellows contributed to this report.

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