WATERVLIET ARSENAL, N.Y. -- After four years of schooling and 8,000 hours of hands-on training, the Arsenal graduated 11 members of the Arsenal Apprenticeship Program in a recent ceremony conducted here. Since 1905, some of the finest machinists in the country have been homegrown from this program that is supported by the Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y.

These new machinists are more than just a "feeder program" to the Arsenal to place hands on machines, they also represent the future and long-term viability of the Arsenal and maybe of our country. With a graying workforce where the average age is more than 47 at the Arsenal, and a nation that has moved away from making things, the importance of this small graduation and future apprentice graduations may not be appreciated until it is too late.

There once was a time in America when we made things, from the shirts that we wear to the cars that we drive. For those who have recently ventured into a Walmart, you may have noticed that many of the things you placed in your shopping cart are now manufactured overseas, most likely in China.

According to an article by Robert Morley titled The Death of American Manufacturing, manufacturing as a share of the US economy has been plummeting. In 1965, manufacturing accounted for 53 percent of the US economy. By 1988, it only accounted for 39 percent, and in 2004, it accounted for just 9 percent.

There are some who do not sense the power that this drain of manufacturing capability has on the United States because the conversion is coming incrementally slow, kind of like boiling frogs.

For those who aren't from the South, the story goes that if you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out. But if you put a frog in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog will not perceive the threat and will stay in the pot. This metaphor is often used to describe the inability of people to react to significant events when those events occur slowly over time.

But is the slow export of our manufacturing capability only limited to lower skilled types of manufacturing and should we even care' Morley states that when you look at high-tech company Boeing just 20 years ago, most of the parts for its aircraft were manufactured domestically. Today, up to 70 percent of the parts to outfit the 787 Dreamliner will be made overseas.

So, this graduation is important not only to the graduates and to their family members, it is also important to the Arsenal and to our nation.

The Arsenal has remained in continuous operation since 1813 because of one key reason - the Arsenal has a retained capability to produce the nation's tank, howitzer, and mortar tubes, a capability so critical to our warfighters that this capability should not be exported outside of the Department of Defense.

Imagine the potential effect on the Soldier if he had to wait for a foreign manufacturer to respond to an immediate request for a new mortar tube. What influence might our Army have to leverage the foreign company to shift priorities to produce an urgently needed product for the U.S. Soldier'

Because the Arsenal is an Army-owned and operated manufacturer the Army can direct, as it has on many occasions, the Arsenal to shift production lines and resources to accommodate and urgent need. A good example of this was in 2004 when the Army needed Armor Kits for its 5-ton trucks and HMMWV vehicles to counter the deadly IED attacks in Iraq. The Army turned to the Arsenal and within weeks, the Arsenal was assembling armor kits that have saved immeasurable pain and suffering. When the armor kit line ended last year, the team had produced more than 20,000 kits for our troops.

So they may not know it yet, but David Bunny, Merico Catallo, Steven Cusano, George Hathaway, Thomas Heaney, Christopher Herold, Jason Miller, Donald Olszowy, Michael Paraszczak, Robert Seeloff, Daniel Sheldon, Robert Tompkins, James Washburn, and Frederick Willett are key to the Arsenal retaining its core capability of responsive machining to support our servicemen and women who are today in combat.