By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2011; B01
When the command at Fort Belvoir decided to install a new system to warn the base of urgent situations, it went all out, buying what's known as the "Giant Voice": 18 speakers that can blast at 90 decibels each, calling out the alarm to every corner of the sprawling installation near Mount Vernon.
But when the Army base recently started using the system some jokingly refer to as "God: The Voice" to pump out its five daily bugle calls, including the staccato riffs of reveille before sunrise and taps at 11 p.m., bleary-eyed residents started complaining.
"You have got to be Freaking kidding me!" one person wrote on the base's Facebook page. "First they play TAPS at 11pm last night, late I might add, then REVEILLE at 630 in the morning like they are supposed to, but now all 3 of my kids are up! . . . [O]ur kids need our sleep . . . Mommy and Daddy need their sanity."
"If my 4-year-old climbs in my bed at 9:00pm and 11:00pm again because of that flipping trumpet there will be consequences and repercussions!!!" wrote another poster.
Another base resident called the sounds "CRAZY loud."
Oops, said the base's leaders.
Turns out they had meant to play the late-night and early morning music on just six of the 18 speakers. And it turns out that the speakers operate at only one, non-adjustable volume: loud.
Officials are talking to the manufacturer to see whether there is any way to turn down the volume, said Jacquie Leeker, a Belvoir spokeswoman.
"We want to make sure we're watching out for our Army families," she said. "We're trying to reach a good compromise."
But as Army officials limited the bugle calls to six of the speakers - then, after more complaints, to four, and most recently, after even more complaints, to two - an increasingly nasty culture clash opened up inside the gates of the fortified base. Some see the bugle calls as the sacrosanct sound of patriotism, and others hear them as unnecessary intrusions that rattle windows and set dogs barking in residential neighborhoods far from spartan barracks life.
"This is family housing," said one Belvoir resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared reprisal from the Army. "This is not a battlefield. They don't have any authority over what time I go to sleep and wake up or that my children have to sleep from 11 to 6:30."
The base, on 13.5 square miles on the banks of the Potomac, is undergoing a massive expansion, thanks to the 2005 base realignment and closure process, which is bringing more jobs to Belvoir than to any other military installation in the country. The total base population is about 24,000, including 7,000 full-time residents.
Surrounding communities have for years worried that Belvoir's growth would clog their roads, but no one thought the base might also serve as neighborhood alarm clock.
"Reveille woke me and my kids up this morning and we're a mile away from the nearest gate," wrote one off-the-base resident.
On Tuesday, after the bugle calls were sounded on only four speakers, some residents were appeased. As of Wednesday, Leeker said only two speakers were being used.
"Now I can sleep on my days off," wrote one relieved resident.
"We are SO grateful, my kids are getting way too tired," wrote another. "It's not an issue of commitment to the Army, it's an issue of the health of the children."
But tamping down the bugle calls was seen by others as diminishing the esprit de corps that is supposed to pervade the post.
"Are we on a Military Installation or a College Campus?" wrote one poster.
"There is supposed to be Bugle calls heard on post. We kick Tradition, Pride and History out for a few crying individuals, who are more than likely on this installation for the money (JOB) and not pride. What are we coming to as a military???"
Another pro-bugles resident said, "When the bugles started up about a week ago, my spirit was lifted and I felt good about being on a military installation again."
Belvoir is not the only area installation that uses the Giant Voice system.
Last year, Fort Myer, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, also woke the neighborhood after using the system to broadcast bugle calls.
In a news release/mea culpa/apology, the base said that "the volume had inadvertently been left on the highest level, which had prompted many complaints from neighboring communities."
Marine Corps Base Quantico also uses Giant Voice but only as an emergency alert system, Lt. Agustine Solivan said. Bugle calls are done on a separate public address system, with speakers near only flagpoles, not residences, he said.
"Our residents are sleeping during those hours," he said, "and we don't want to disturb them."