A video screen grab shows a scene from a change of command ceremony that took place on the edge of Kaneohe Bay at Marine Corps Base, Hawaii, on Thursday, May 25, 2023.

A video screen grab shows a scene from a change of command ceremony that took place on the edge of Kaneohe Bay at Marine Corps Base, Hawaii, on Thursday, May 25, 2023. (Facebook)

At a Thursday ceremony on the edge of Kaneohe Bay, outgoing Marine Corps Base Hawaii commander Col. Speros Koumparakis handed over the reins to his successor, Col. Jeremy Beaven.

Koumparakis assumed command of MCBH in June 2020, not long after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. He was responsible for administration of 4, 500 acres within five parcels on Oahu that serve roughly 20, 000 personnel—including Marines, Navy, military family members, civilian employees, contractors and veterans.

During his time, he juggled the demands of the pandemic, a Marine Corps reshaping its force for operations in the Pacific amid tensions with China, and a series of local controversies over environmental issues and debate about the future of the historic base. During the ceremony, Marine Corps Installations Pacific commander Maj. Gen. Stephen Liszewski—who oversees all Marine Corps facilities in the Pacific region—praised Koumparakis' leadership.

"There's not a lot of glory in some of those tasks, " Liszewski said. "But what he did was provided the support to the operating forces here to project power, to generate and sustain readiness ... (and was ) guided with the sense of protecting the land, protecting the history and the culture and, most importantly, protecting your relationship with the people here in the state of Hawaii."

But that relationship has been sometimes strained.

In 2022 the state Department of Health slapped MCBH with a $240, 250 fine for unauthorized wastewater discharge from its Kaneohe Bay Water Reclamation Facility. For its part, the Marine Corps submitted a request to the state for a contested case hearing. Marine Corps officials say they are working to fix the aging facility and want to modernize it.

This year first-term U.S. Rep. Jill Tokuda and U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono have requested funding to repair and upgrade the troubled facility. If approved, the funding would come through a congressional earmark, money that lawmakers can set aside for special projects in their district that were not originally included in the president's budget request, though it's not certain it will survive when lawmakers begin competing with each other to secure funding in their districts.

Koumparakis also took on the job as local frustrations already had begun boiling on the other side of the island at Ewa Beach, where a plan to install a concrete "shore stabilization " barrier at the Marines' Puuloa Range Training Facility to protect it from erosion prompted a backlash the previous year and continued to be a hot-button issue. State environmental officials warned the project would hasten the actual erosion of the beach.

The Marines ultimately abandoned the project. The Marine Corps already has relocated its most precarious short-range firing range—known as Foxtrot—about 40 meters mauka to reduce the threat of shoreline erosion, and has been testing the area for potential lead poisoning with state agencies. In a March announcement, Koumparakis said, "It is my intent for MCBH to pursue these changes at PRTF to ensure the longevity of the training facility and the health and safety of the surrounding environment and community."

In April, state legislators passed a nonbinding resolution urging the relocation of the entire firing range, citing concerns about noise, safety and possible lead exposure to nearby homes, the shoreline and the ocean. The Marines argue PRTF is their only 1, 000-yard "known distance firing range " for sniper training in Hawaii and the only location where all 7, 000 Hawaii-based Marines can undergo annual rifle qualifications out to 500 yards.

The Marines are in the midst of restructuring their entire force, starting with troops in Hawaii, amid simmering geopolitical tensions. The Corps is undergoing a radical reorganization called Force Design 2030, which aims to shift gears from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria to return the service to its roots as an amphibious force focused on island and coastal fighting—but with a 21st-century twist.

This vision seems largely focused on potential operations around the South China Sea, a busy waterway through which one-third of all international trade travels. China considers the entire waterway its exclusive sovereign territory and has been locked in a series of maritime navigational and territorial disputes with its neighbors.

The Chinese military has built bases on disputed islands and reefs over the objections of neighboring countries and has been stepping up its operations around Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing considers a rogue province and has vowed to bring under its control.

In 2022 the Corps officially activated the 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment at MCBH. The unit is the first of its kind and is set to serve as the blueprint for the Marines' future fighting units. Commanders hope the new units will be able seize islands and coastlines and set up missile batteries to take out enemy ships and disrupt supply lines.

Under Force Design 2030, Koumparakis and his team also oversaw the departure of all the Marines' traditional helicopter units from Kaneohe, which have long been a source of noise complaints around the island. The focus turned to operation of the Corps' Hawaii-­based tilt-rotor MV-22 Ospreys, an aircraft that can take off vertically like a helicopter but can adjust its rotors to fly like a plane to travel faster and farther than a traditional helicopter.

With the support of the new KC-130Js refuelers that arrived this year, the Ospreys can fly continuously across vast stretches of ocean. The Marines also have received new MQ-9 Reaper drones to replace the smaller RQ-21 surveillance drones that have flown out of the base for the past four years. The Reapers can fly much higher and also can be refueled by KC-130Js. During the ceremony, the new aircraft were on display on the parade field.

"What you see there today is not aircraft that fly around Hawaii ; Force Design has put aircraft here that fly from Hawaii to support our partners and our allies, " Koumparakis told attendees. "(Marines in ) Hawaii now through Force Design can depart today and, in less than 36 hours, be with our partners and allies in the first and second island chains. That is different."

But to accommodate and maintain the new aircraft, the Marine Corps has plans to demolish historic Hangar 103, which was attacked by the Japanese navy on Dec. 7, 1941, and still bears damage from the battle. The plan drew swift criticism from historians and preservation groups.

In 2022 the Marine Corps signed a memorandum of agreement with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation that contains several measures to mitigate the impact on historic sites. Construction of the new Type II Hangar 103 is expected to take place between fiscal years 2025 and 2027, and the Marine Corps has said design of this new hangar will incorporate "historic design elements consistent with those found on hangars built here during World War II."

Incoming base commander Beaven is a Marine Corps aviator and former chief of staff of the Marine Corps Office of Legislative Affairs, which several Marines at the base believe will help him in securing funding for projects. In addressing the assembled crowd, which included local elected officials and community leaders, he spoke of his love of the outdoors and history, and his enthusiasm for protecting both.

"You will find in me a ready ear, to hear and to learn, and to grow and to help in decision-making, " Beaven said.

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