By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneMarch 24, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--The Marines are marching on. And their presence at Redstone Arsenal will be sorely missed.
Gone will be the young Marine privates anxious to make a good impression in their first-ever ammunition training class. Gone will be the Marine instructors who know what it takes to be the best ammunition tech in the military. Gone will be the units of Marines marching between classes, their barracks and the dining facility in the Arsenal's Gate 10 area.
The good news is they will all be back together again in a larger unit and in better facilities once they regroup as part of the Headquarters Company, Alpha and Bravo, Marine Corps Detachment, USA Quartermaster Course and Schools Training Command at Fort Lee, Va. They are moving along with the 59th Ordnance Brigade, the 832nd Ordnance Battalion, and the Ordnance Munitions and Electronics Maintenance School as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure decisions.
The bad news is they are leaving behind a tradition for Marine instruction that has brought a lot of good men and women to Redstone and Huntsville, not only for training in their military occupational specialty, but also, for some, to live long after retirement.
"This is a loss for the Marine Corps, especially for those of us who have trained here and have worked here over the decades," said Marine Corps Detachment commander Capt. Darrell Walker. "The Marine's ammunition handlers have been trained right here, and they have felt the love and support of this community. Redstone Arsenal is our spiritual home. All the ammo technicians I know have been through this school. ... We will definitely miss Huntsville. Tradition doesn't even begin to cover it."
On March 15, the Marine Corps Detachment of Redstone Arsenal cased its colors under its commander's watchful eye during a deactivation ceremony. About 70 Marines - most students, others instructors -- assigned to the detachment participated in the ceremony.
"This is a very bittersweet occasion for us and a very solemn occasion for us," Walker told the well-wishers who attended the noon ceremony at the Arsenal's parade field.
Since 1972, more than 18,000 Marines have gone through the ammunition classes for ammunition handlers, officers and technicians offered by OMEMS. With the color casing, the move to Fort Lee will begin. It will include three phases with some of the instructors moving at the end of March, the last class of Marine students leaving at the end of May when they graduate, and the remaining instructors and detachment administrators leaving by the end of July.
"There are advantages to going to Fort Lee," Walker said. "We will be consolidated there with other Marine Corps units. There are more facilities there and they are new. From an economic standpoint, it makes sense to be consolidated."
The detachment's ammunition training classes are part of OMEMS. As such the 59th Ordnance Brigade, which manages the schoolhouse, has been the detachment's host on Redstone Arsenal.
"You've helped us out along the way," Walker said. "We shared a special relationship and worked together as a team."
During his comments, Walker also thanked Redstone's Family and Morale Welfare and Recreation, saying the Marines' "quality of life would have suffered if it had not been for you.
"I also want to thank Huntsville and Redstone Arsenal for the love and for the brotherhood and the community you've shown us since we've been here. ... We felt the sense of community. We felt the sense of love. We felt the sense of welcome. This place will always be in our hearts. ... There's a sense of community here that you can't experience anywhere else."
Though the Marines trained at Redstone can't change the move to Fort Lee, they can "always come back home and we can come back to Redstone Arsenal," the commander said.
Col. Lee Merritt, commander of the 59th Ordnance Brigade, said he has been amazed with the expertise and abilities the Marine Corps has added to the training experience at OMEMS.
"Our instructors and the Marine instructors work side-by-side," he said. "Marine Corps instructors teach Army Soldiers and Army NCOs teach Marines. Before there was joint, OMEMS became a true joint team."
In the whole scheme of things, the detachment's move is smaller in terms of its permanent staff loss to Redstone. It's a larger loss when considered as part of the decreasing role Redstone will have in the training of young, active duty servicemembers.
"It is a bittersweet moment. But, at the end of the day, we're all about training Soldiers and Marines to go out and do their war time mission," Merritt said, adding the new facilities at Fort Lee will improve the training environment.
Even after the detachment is gone, the connections young Marines made here will continue to have a positive impact on Redstone and the community.
"The students we have here are basically transient," Walker said of the Marine classes that come in for training, graduate and then go on to their next assignment. "On staff here, we have 11 administrators and instructors who will actually make the move.
"But, even after our training, we come back and forth here for additional training and events. Many who have been part of this detachment decide to make this area their home."
That's what has happened to Walker, who is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, and two tours during Operation Iraqi Freedom. After he wraps up the final details related to the detachment's move, he will retire from the Marines. He and his family have already settled in Athens.
"I love it here. I've been coming here on and off for my whole career. I actually started my career here in 1985," Walker said. "I worked up from private to commanding officer of the detachment here. ... This will be a great place to retire. The economy here is good. And my family likes it here."
Recently elected District 2 State Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, a retired Marine chief warrant officer 3 and war veteran, commented on his special connections to Redstone during the ceremony. Holtzclaw took the basic ammunition course as a Marine private at Redstone in 1983, and returned in 1999 to serve as the officer in charge at the detachment.
He pointed in the direction of the Marine barracks, indicating a fire break that runs up a hill rising just behind the barracks. That fire break presented a climbing challenge to the Marine students stationed at Redstone.
"There's a hill to be climbed and Marines are going to climb it because that's what we do," Holtzclaw said.
Before speaking to the ceremony's attendees, Holtzclaw walked out to the Marines in formation and shared his comments with them. He read a quote from President Ronald Reagan about people working their whole lives without knowing whether they've made a difference, but "Marines don't have that problem."
"I wanted to make sure they heard what I had to say," Holtzclaw told the ceremony's attendees as he repeated his comments for them.
"This is the best damn school in the world ... that trains the best damn ammo technicians the world has ever seen," he said. On the battlefield, he continued "there is no finer friend than an ammunition technician."
Holtzclaw presented a Senate resolution and proclamation from Gov. Robert Bentley, describing Redstone as "the only place in the world where ammunition technicians are trained ... to supply the most vital asset on the battlefield."
Following the ceremonies, Marines lined up to sign the glass frame holding a Marine Corps T-shirt that was presented to Holtzclaw by the detachment. Those young Marines represented the faces of the more than 18,000 Marines who have lived at Redstone Arsenal during their ammunition training.
"This is the first time I've ever done anything like this," said 19-year-old Pvt. Jeffery Briscoe. "When I graduate, I will be going back to my Reserve Station unit in South Carolina. I've liked it here."
Pvt. Dvone Gibson said his drill instructor was an ammunition technician, and that's why he decided on ammunition tech as his military occupational specialty.
"I want to be a drill instructor some day," he said.
Participating in the deactivation ceremony, Gibson said, "was an honor. We're the last of the ammunition technicians at Redstone Arsenal, Ala."