By Elizabeth Williamson and Ray Rivera
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 14, 2006
In a ceremony that began with a prayer and ended with tears, the U.S. Naval Academy sent its Marine sentries off to war yesterday, ending a 155-year tradition at the school because of the demand for combat troops.
"Pray for them, for many of them are going into harm's way," a chaplain said in an invocation as the four dozen Marines, scarcely older than the midshipmen they guard, stood in quiet formation behind him.
Since before the Civil War, Marine sentries have provided security for dignitaries' visits and special events on the Annapolis campus. They also performed largely ceremonial duties, including standing guard outside John Paul Jones's crypt and the academy's museum.
The sentries were most visible, however, at the academy's gates, where "they maintained day-to-day vigilance . . . but they've done much more, in their ability to look tough but remain pleasant," said Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the Naval Academy superintendent.
Turning to the Marines lined up behind him in the academy's Bancroft Hall in Annapolis, Rempt said: "You've become a part of us. God bless, fair winds and following seas."
The Marines are being replaced by Navy enlisted personnel.
Dozens of military installations across the nation have turned to civilian security officers in recent years, and the Navy is leaving that option open for the academy. The Army's U.S. Military Academy at West Point and post at Fort Meade brought on private security firms in 2004.
The sentries' departure reflects the strain on U.S. forces stretched thin by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Obviously, we can use those Marines in more significant roles," said Gary Solis, a West Point professor and former official historian for the Marine Corps who frequently lectures at the Naval Academy. "But it's too bad a tradition like that has to end."
Marines have been providing security for the Naval Academy since 1851, six years after its founding. Back then, they were quartered aboard ships in the Severn River, which borders the 338-acre campus.
Michael I. Christman, a 1985 Naval Academy graduate who serves on the Annapolis City Council, taught his 2 1/2- year-old son to shout "ooh-rah" to the guards when the child passed through the gates to visit the campus. "It was just a way to pay respect to the guys standing duty, because it's not necessarily fun duty," Christman said.
The ceremony yesterday closed with a reading of the formal orders for the company to turn over its weapons and records. The academy band played a few bars of "Auld Lang Syne," then "Anchors Aweigh" and "The Marines' Hymn," as people in the crowd of 100 wiped their eyes. Dismissed for the final time, the young men wandered away.