MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. --
For 70 years, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., has served as the headquarters of the East Coast’s Marine aviation component, the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing. Through every conflict since World War II, and in times of peace, the service members and civilian employees that make the air station home have stood side by side with the community outside the gates, forging an important partnership.
That’s because the fence that separates the air station from the surrounding communities does not prevent roughly 36,000 service members, civilian employees and family members from being an integral part of those communities, not to mention the many service members who have retired in this area over the years. You can't have such a large workforce sharing living space and classrooms, eating in the same restaurants and shopping in the same stores without realizing they are just as much a part of the local community as everyone else.
To help make that partnership work, Cherry Point has developed and maintains a strong sharing relationship with the civilian infrastructure. Both civilian and military leaders describe a tremendous spirit of cooperation with organizations like law enforcement, schools and emergency response.
One demonstration of a nearly invisible but important partnership with the local community is the air station’s dedicated liaison who helps integrate the more than 5,000 military-connected children who attend elementary, middle and high schools in Craven and Carteret counties.
Donna Bagley, Cherry Point’s school liaison, works to ensure there is a healthy partnership with the school districts to educate and care for those children. Bagley says that children from military backgrounds have unique issues, noting frequent moves, having parents who are deployed, and having parents who return from deployment with an injury.
Bagley helps the local school system maintain a healthy and open relationship with the military community. This involves fostering an adopt-a-school program where squadrons here can maintain a close volunteer relationship with a local school. This year, Bagley says she expects to have more than a dozen local schools adopted. Bagley also works to ensure educators at local schools are attuned to the needs of military children and understand the resources available aboard Cherry Point. For example, she will host an “educators’ boot camp” Oct. 15 – a periodic program designed to boost school staff and administrators’ understanding of the challenges military children face and the resources available to assist with those challenges.
“It’s important that we have a personal relationship, so they feel comfortable calling when they just don’t know who to call about a student,” says Bagley.
Another vital relationship between the air station and its neighbors is the Cherry Point provost marshal’s office’s similarly close working relationship with local law enforcement, sharing information and resources.
Elijah Bouie Jr., the deputy chief of police at Cherry Point, says the partnership with local law enforcement is healthy and active, with the departments frequently sharing resources like canine units and helping one another on investigations.
“The spirit of cooperation is definitely there,” says Bouie. “It is all one big family.”
Havelock Chief of Police G. Wayne Cyrus can’t agree more.
“Since the city and the air station are so intertwined, the relationship between the two entities is very important.” says Cyrus. “We work very hard to maintain it to ensure we’re able to keep the community safe.”
Perhaps the most visible example of off-base support for the civilian community is provided by Cherry Point’s Marine Transport Squadron 1. VMR-1 provides rapid multipurpose light transportation of key personnel and logistics to the Department of Defense. However, to the local community here, the unit is well known for another purpose.
The squadron’s search-and-rescue component features a fleet of orange and gray HH-46E Sea Knight helicopters operationally known as “Pedro.” Though Pedro’s main mission is to provide search and rescue support to Marine Corps aircraft training in the area, it is occasionally called upon by the Coast Guard or local authorities to lend its services to the eastern North Carolina community.
“The local people have a real affinity for Pedro” says Lt. Col. Edward T. Lang, commanding officer of VMR-1. “They are extremely appreciative of the support.”
Several things make Pedro a valuable resource to the community, including the only rescue swimmers in the Marine Corps and a team of Navy corpsmen specially trained to serve on the aircraft.
“Because of those additional medical capabilities,” says Lang, “we’re routinely called upon to assist the local community.”
Lang says the squadron’s agreement with the Coast Guard and local agencies is contingent upon not jeopardizing their primary mission of supporting 2nd MAW. Pedro’s crew steps in if other resources are unavailable, are otherwise occupied, or if the weather is too poor for another aircraft to fly.
But as long as those conditions are met, Lang says the Marines in the squadron value the opportunity to help their neighbors. All of the squadron’s rescue swimmers volunteered for the role, and Lang says when he tells people he commands VMR-1, they react very positively.
“VMR-1 provides that mental sense of security (for people) to know that in light of limited resources the military is there and ready to assist.”
On the air station, no one cherishes the partnership with the local community more than Col. Philip J. Zimmerman, Cherry Point's commanding officer.
“Our relationship with the community is one of mutual success,” Zimmerman says. “Whether we're teaching our children, rescuing people in distress, or making sure the streets are safe at night, we are all in this together, shoulder to shoulder. That's exactly how it should be, and that's exactly how it will remain.”