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What do Beaufort's military commanders have to say about the Lowcountry and the challenges ahead?

It's been nearly a year since Capt. Mark Bernier, Brig. Gen. James B. Laster and Col. John R. Snider were handed the battle colors and asked to lead Beaufort's three major military facilities that altogether infuse $1 billion annually into the local economy.

In separate interviews last week, the members of the Tri-Command were asked what they've learned in the last year, about their new lives in Beaufort and about the challenges ahead for the remainder of their tenure in the Lowcountry.

CAPT. MARK BERNIER, NAVAL HOSPITAL BEAUFORT

Though a native of northern New Hampshire, Capt. Mark Bernier has spent more time in the Southeast than he ever spent growing up in the Granite State.

Having worked with the Marine Corps at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Ga., Bernier, 56, said the opportunity to work with the Corps again is what motivated him to put in for the command post at Naval Hospital Beaufort last year.

"I had done a tour with the Marines in Albany, Ga., and my thought was if I was gong to be a CO of a Navy hospital, I'd much rather do it near a Marine Corps base," he said. "So I was really drawn here by Parris Island and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort."

Bernier took command of the naval hospital on March 31, 2008, when he replaced Capt. Elaine Wagner, who left Beaufort to become commanding officer of Expeditionary Medical Facility Kuwait.

The last year has been a learning experience for Bernier, who cites the medical challenges posed by recruit training at Parris Island as one of the biggest eye-openers.

"Anyone who comes here and says they automatic know all of the medical challenges we have on Parris Island is not being totally honest," he said.

An avid golfer, Bernier said he's played rounds at several area courses, citing The Legends at Parris Island and Secession Golf Club on Lady's Island among his favorites. But he is thrilled most by the scenery of Naval Hospital Beaufort.

"Every Friday morning, we have a colors ceremony at 0800, and this base is just the most glorious spot in all of Navy medicine," he said. "The sun comes right up over the flag pole. It's just fun being here for that."

BRIG. GEN. JAMES B. LASTER, MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT PARRIS ISLAND

The mythology of Marine Corps Parris Island was not lost on Brig. Gen. James B. Laster.

"You hear the old-timers talk about the rough and tough days of Parris Island," he said. "You hear that it's hot, it's a swamp, it's miserable, there's bugs everywhere, and I also had that in my mind a little bit before I got here."

What Laster found after taking command of the depot was a place he and his family will be sad to leave.

"When I got down here, I quickly saw that this is paradise," he said. "It's beautiful. It's not a swamp, it's a marshland. The ecosystem here is this living, breathing thing with tides. I truly like it here."

Laster, 52, became the depot's commanding general May 30, taking over for Maj. Gen. Paul Lefebvre, who now serves as the deputy commanding general for Multi-National Corps Iraq.

Though schooled in the technical aspects of recruit training, Laster said he had underestimated the depot's civic importance.

"I don't think I had a full understanding of how important Parris Island is to the community and how important the community is to Parris Island," he said.

Laster cited continued hurricane preparedness and improving aging infrastructure on the 94-year-old base as his top priorities for the remainder of his tenure. The depot is slated to receive $10 million this summer for lighting and ventilation projects.

"We need to make sure we get the funding and money we need from my higher headquarters and the Department of Defense to improve infrastructure," he said. "This is an old base. We are making some progress, and we've recently gotten some money as part of the (federal) stimulus package. And we're improving our infrastructure."

COL. JOHN R. SNIDER, MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT

Col. John Snider is no stranger to the Lowcountry.

Snider, 48, had twice served tours at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort before being tapped to replace Col. Robert Lanham as the air station's commanding officer on July 9.

"I'm in my 11th year of living in the Lowcountry," he said. "Beaufort is a great place to live. There are great people here, and part of me doesn't want it to get out to the rest of country because they'll start to flock in here. It's a hidden gem."

Having served as the commanding officer of Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 533, Snider knew what it took to oversee the operation of one of the air station's F-18 squadrons, but running the base was a much broader task.

"It's a city within the City of Beaufort," he said. "Every function you see out in Beaufort that either the county or the city serves we have on this base. Understanding all of those unique responsibilities and services is something I've learned a great deal about."

Snider said much of the air station's future will hinge on the arrival of the Joint Strike Fighter, a jet that will replace all of the F-18s flown by the air station's pilots starting in 2012.

Whether the air station will keep its operational squadrons or become a pilot training center will depend on the results of a Navy report examining possible environmental impacts of basing the jet in Beaufort.

A draft of the report will be released in January.

The jet "is the future of the Marine Corps. There's no doubt about that," Snider said. "There are issues with any new aircraft, even when we introduced the F-18. We need to make sure we're being upfront about those issues and work through them with the community and the base."

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