Marine guards, who have protected the Naval Academy in Annapolis since before the Civil War, will soon be replaced by other security employees under a Pentagon plan aimed at freeing up more soldiers for active duty.
The Marine sentries have long been a familiar site on the 388-acre campus and have stood watch at the military college's three entrance gates since 1987.
But a spokesman for the Marine Corps said yesterday that sometime in the next eight months, the Marines will be replaced.
The move is "part of a service-wide plan to introduce the capabilities these Marines offer to the operating forces," said Capt. Dan McSweeney, a corps spokesman in Washington. "The Marines who have been acting as guards at the Naval Academy may be deployed overseas in support of the global war on terrorism."
It was unclear how many Marines would be affected.
The corps also declined to offer details on who would replace the camouflage-clad guards, saying only that they would be "competent and well-trained personnel."
Dozens of other military installations have recently begun using privately contracted guards.
Last May, Fort Meade turned to Alaska-based security firm Alutiiq-Wackenhut, the same company that secures the Military Academy at West Point and other installations. The sprawling Army post had used Army reservists and National Guard members for security.
Peter W. Singer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the decision to hire civilian security - whether it's at the academy or at a base in Iraq - reflects the strain on U.S. forces.
"It also raises some glaring questions," Singer said. "The reason you have military guards in these roles is not that you don't have anyone else to fill them, but because someone decided that military capability was needed."
Some Anne Arundel County officials expressed concern about the change. The Marines have guarded the college since 1851, six years after the school's founding.
"I am extremely disappointed by the decision of the U.S. Marine Corps to replace the military guards at the U.S. Naval Academy with private security," said U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat who represents Anne Arundel County, in a statement.
"The presence of Marine guards is an important deterrent to terrorists or others who would harm our nation," he said. "Public safety and security at military installations are basic functions of our government and we should not delegate this responsibility to the private sector."
Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer agreed.
"I don't want to cast aspersions on private security, but this gives me pause," Moyer said. "The Marines are a positive symbol and, personally, I felt good about them being there."
Academy officials said yesterday that the changeover would not cause any lapse in security at the school.
"The academy will continue to have security, so people should not be concerned," said academy spokeswoman Deborah Goode.
In the wake of Sept. 11, the Marines at the academy's main gate were ordered to step up security by checking the identification cards of all visitors. That practice caused controversy on New Year's Eve 2003 when the superintendent at the time, Vice Adm. Richard J. Naughton, reportedly grabbed the hand of a young Marine during a dispute over his identification card.
Months later, Naughton resigned after a Navy investigation that criticized his leadership style as abusive.
Annapolis lawyer W. Minor Carter, a 1962 academy graduate, said he will be sorry to see the Marine guards go. He said they lent some cachet to the campus of the military college.
"It's really too bad. Having them there saluting was a very nice touch with their posture and carriage," Carter said. "There's no one who can do that as well as Marines."