A job for the `Blue Crew'

Submariners from the USS Maryland step ashore in Anne Arundel to build stairs and community ties

September 27, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN REPORTER

Sub crew shores up community ties Jason Schultz, a young Navy submariner from small-town Illinois, is now hard at work on dry land in Glen Burnie -- compliments of a military-civilian partnership in Anne Arundel County.

He and six shipmates from the USS Maryland are busy improving a small community park near the B&A Trail. In Navy parlance, it's known as a "ComRel" visit, short for community relations, all the more important in wartime, said Al Rivera, the master chief of the boat.

In this case, building a set of 25 wood steps in Saunders Park, leading up to the popular biking and walking trail, is the order of the week. Centered on the border of the square park, the hill is steep enough to be a ski slope, and its sharp incline has caused many falls for those crossing to a nearby shopping center and neighborhood.

The forlorn wood bars now separating the old railroad trail and the Harundale Oakwood Park community are seen as a practical, unsightly barrier.

So several enlisted men on a 19,000-ton steel structure that silently prowls the world's waters ready to fire nuclear weapons volunteered to make a simple difference to a neighborhood. The goal of the "Blue Crew" is to complete the task by tomorrow.

"It's a good reminder of why we're making the sacrifices, spending 90 to 100 days without seeing the sun or breathing fresh air," Schultz, 23, said, during a break from the day's labor. "The military is fueled by communities."

Leaving his carpentry for a moment, Rivera, 42, said he mentors his guys in a fatherly way, knowing there are long stretches of time away from loved ones, with the next tour taking them down into the deep over the winter holidays. When they sign on for community visits, he said, they drive up from Kings Bay, Ga., where they live on a large naval base, on their own time and dime.

When they surface into civilian life for a few weeks and months, he added, it's important for his men to see what they accomplish.

"They like to see the tangible effect, the lasting results of their work," Rivera said. "It gives them life skills, like roofing and painting."

Navy sailor Nick Sterling of Antioch, Calif., echoed that thought. "Most of the work we do nobody hears about," he said. "It was made apparent to us that it's needed, and we'll have it done."

Deborah "Bea" W. Poulin, the county's community specialist, said she "put two and two together" in finding a mission to match the sailors' can-do spirit with a community need. It's the latest good-will volunteer project for the USS Maryland, which has shored up a town hall, rebuilt a senior center roof and cleaned vacant lots in the state for which it is named. It's a world away from the ocean floors.

As the robust crew broke a sweat digging up and down a small but steep hill, they were eyed by about 10 teenagers who frequent the park after school.

A handful of boys played basketball, while others perched on the swing set to watch the work in progress. Little was said between the two groups, but the youths were impressed by the idea that they would get their stairs back, after some rickety old stairs were removed some time ago.

"I was mad when they took them away," a bespectacled Jessica Krutzfeldt, 14, said. "I live over there and I fell a couple times."

"This is helping us out," a tall, soft-spoken Rupert Jones, 18, said. "I ain't got to climb up on that."

"More people will come to the park," Tristan Reading, 15, said.

The surrounding community of about 1,100 houses consists of 1940s middle-class housing stock, built in the post-World War II boom, that is showing a few signs of wear, residents said. The modest park on Saunders Way bordering the old railroad greenway trail -- the B&A, which once connected Baltimore and Annapolis -- became a concern, known locally for more loitering and suspected drug dealing than as a place for swings and seesaws.

"There's a lot of traffic and litter, and it doesn't look much like moms and toddlers," observed Marc Rubin, a resident for 12 years. The new wood stairs are a critical piece of an overall revitalization of the park, he said, which will add new trees, benches and picnic tables. Right now, places to sit down and socialize are scant.

Michael H. Jennings, 47, president of the Harundale Oakwood Park Civic Association, said he and his wife Dolores, the association treasurer, run a floor covering company and have volunteered in the community since 1997.

The couple said they were glad to have the Navy in the neighborhood for another reason. "Our son Matthew, 17, just took the military exam and is considering what service to enter," Dolores Jennings said.

Steve Montgomery, a local contractor and the project manager, said the estimated cost is $11,000, given the Navy's donated time and labor.

The USS Maryland is one of 50 nuclear submarines in the Navy fleet, Rivera said. Deployed anywhere, often of late to the Middle East and near North Korea, the operational philosophy is that the nuclear submarines act as a deterrent to war.

Accustomed to sleeping in bunks 7 feet long, 3 feet wide and 2 feet tall, the submariners have been entertained like princes, going to a Baltimore Orioles baseball game and a Navy football game, invited by various sponsors. And to top off the "ComRel" visit, the "Blue Crew" will take a bike ride along the greenway.


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