Prayers and best wishes for former President Jimmy Carter began pouring in from around the world when it was announced on Saturday that he was admitted to hospice care. Much of that affection and praise was due to President Carter’s extraordinary life, which he devoted to the basic principles of service to others and compassion for those who need help.
In Eastern Connecticut though, there exists a special and unique appreciation for the former President from Georgia. After graduating from Annapolis Naval Academy in 1946, and following two tours as an ensign on surface ships, Carter volunteered for the submarine force and was stationed at Naval Submarine Base New London, located in Groton. There, he received officer training from Groton’s Submarine School, and was promoted to lieutenant.
In 1952, Carter became part of the legendary Hyman Rickover’s new Office of Naval Reactors, an elite unit which introduced nuclear propulsion to America’s submarine force and revolutionized the reach and stealth of our fleet. At that point in his career, Carter had earned himself a virtually guaranteed path of greater promotion and success. However, in October 1953 — after his 58-year-old father died of pancreatic cancer — Carter left active-duty with an honorable discharge after seven years and four months of service, returning to his childhood home of Plains, Ga., to run the family farm.
Carter stayed connected to the Navy as a reservist until 1961, but never became Chief of Naval Operations, which he had privately aspired to. Ironically, he did even better than that when he became Commander in Chief of the U.S. Military after his election as President in 1976.
President Carter left Connecticut in 1953, but he never forgot our state. He proved that in 2005, when the Navy sought to close the Groton base, and to transfer its fleet of submarines to Kings Bay, Ga. Former President Carter shocked his home state and the Navy by publicly opposing the plan. As Anthony Principi, Chairman of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, stated at the time, Carter’s letter citing the value of SUBASE New London’s “proud submarine heritage” was a “key factor” in his and the Commission’s decision to reverse the Navy’s plan by a 7-1 vote.
President Carter joined a chorus of voices from Connecticut in advocating for the Groton base. “Team Connecticut” — led by Gov. Jodi Rell, Sens. Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman, and my predecessor U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, as well as a formidable submarine base coalition — mounted a well-documented and stout defense for the base. But in the end, it was Carter’s letter that really stung the King’s Bay supporters. The U.S. Congressman from King’s Bay, Jack Kingston, bitterly accused Carter of going against the “home team” of Georgia. Sonny Perdue, the former Governor of Georgia, howled, “What was he thinking?”
Principi noted during an interview on C-SPAN at the time that Carter “was the highest ranking of anyone who weighed in for any base.” I had the privilege to meet Chairman Principi years later, and he reiterated how powerful President Carter’s letter was in their decision to block the closure of Submarine Base New London.
Now, 18 years later, the Groton base has been modernized with new infrastructure and new piers capable of housing the next generation of American submarines, and its mission is as busy as any time in history. Its submarine school is also still a vital part of the U.S. Navy’s undersea training program, which is the best in the world.
President Carter’s brave statement endorsing Groton’s military value has been repeatedly validated over time, and that endorsement has proven to be a major benefit not just for our state, but for our entire nation.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney represents Connecticut’s 2nd Congressional District which includes Groton and most of Eastern Connecticut.