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Changes in the Wind at Yorktown Naval Weapons Station

Sailors from Navy Cargo Handling Battalion ONE (NCHB 1) practice using a crane at a training simulator at Naval Weapon Station Yorktown, Jan. 6, 2016. (U.S. Navy Photo/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Benjamin Wooddy)
Sailors from Navy Cargo Handling Battalion ONE (NCHB 1) practice using a crane at a training simulator at Naval Weapon Station Yorktown, Jan. 6, 2016. (U.S. Navy Photo/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Benjamin Wooddy)

YORK -- Capt. Paul C. Haebler is ready to turn over command of Yorktown Naval Weapons Station, a post he's held for three satisfying years.

But Friday's change of command ceremony isn't the only transformation at this sprawling, yet low-profile installation. New, energy-efficient living quarters are being built to accommodate an influx of Marines. Efforts are ongoing to find ways to engage the public about the base.

Next year, the installation will mark its 100th anniversary.

Haebler is on his way to Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk to work in an anti-terrorism role, so he won't oversee that celebration. That will fall to the incoming commander, Capt. Matthew Kosnar. But the upgrades he's helped direct should give the installation a head start on its next hundred years.

Several years ago, the Marine Corps decided to consolidate its anti-terrorism units spread around Hampton Roads at the weapons station. A few hundred Marines are now at Yorktown, and Haebler said another 1,000 are on the way.

That's a significant influx. The base now has about 2,800 personnel, split between active duty and civilian.

Accommodating the Marines will require three multi-level barracks. The first one is erected, the second is on the way, and third is yet to be built. The capacity of the galley has been doubled, and the Marines will also require other support facilities that will allow them to train.

And don't forget working out.

"The last piece, we've got to get the gym expanded," Haebler said, "because Marines kind of like to work out -- not that the rest of us don't, but it's almost like a religion for them to go and be fit and in shape. The base is here to support them."

But even with the extra Marines, the weapons station will not feel crowded. It spans some 13,000 acres, much of it wooded. That's by design, thanks to missiles, torpedoes and other ordnance strategically stored around the base. The sites are configured so that a problem with one storage site will be isolated from the rest of the base.

That ordnance is loaded onto Navy warships that navigate up the York River on a weekly basis to be re-armed, and also onto ammunition supply ships that serve aircraft carriers.

The vast expanse of open space is deceptive, something to keep in mind if Congress ever convenes another military base closing round. In this case, open space does not translate into wasted space, Haebler said.

"There is not a lot you can do in those areas except for activities related to ordnance and training," he said.

Besides storage of weapons, the installation is a vast complex of training areas that includes helicopter landing zones and areas for explosive ordnance disposal training. It hosts 37 tenant commands that span supplies and logistics, medical support and, of course, munitions.

The diversity of the base represents an untold story, and one that officials would like to expand upon. During his three years, Haebler spoke at civic groups and became involved in Greater Williamsburg and Peninsula chamber organizations.

He acknowledges that more can be done to raise the station's public profile, although it has to happen with security in mind.

"To most people it's some green sign on the highway -- Weapons Station Yorktown this way -- and that's all they know," he said. "And they don't even know what a weapons station means."

In this case, it means more than weapons. The wooded areas are home to deer and other wildlife, including the bald eagle. History is a large part of the base as well.

A series of archaeological surveys that began in the late 1990s led to the discovery of the famous Kiskiak Indian village known to Capt. John Smith as well as more than 300 other historic sites. The Navy has also taken steps to preserve the ancient Lee House, an unusually rare early-18th-century brick structure whose history dates to the mid-1600s.

In 2012, a Yorktown employee with a background in geology spotted whale bones along the York River shoreline. A subsequent excavation and examination discovered that the bones were 7 million years old.

The Navy also maintains such sites as Cheesecake Cemetery, which holds the remains of an African-American soldier who received the Medal of Honor during the Civil War as well as members of an early Anglican church built before the Revolution.

"Every time I turn around, I find something historical about the base," Haebler said.

These attractions have potential for public engagement, something officials will keep in mind as the station approaches its 100th birthday.

All in all, Yorktown Naval Weapons Station has been an eventful assignment for Haebler, who is a career submariner. His resume includes a stint in command of the USS Alaska, a ballistic missile sub.

"It's one of the neatest job changes you can imagine," he said. "You're kind of like the Navy's equivalent of a city manager."

--Staff writer Mark St. John Erickson contributed to this story.

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