A military pageant of tradition

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Last week, when the band played at Fort Meade, the Army invited everyone to come and listen.

Two years after the base became a closed post protected by armed guards, Army officials invited the public back inside, this time for the annual Twilight Tattoo, a musical chronicle of the Army's 300-year history that officials say is meant to be shared with the civilian public.

The success of Twilight Tattoo, which drew hundreds of visitors, underscores a challenge area military bases have grappled with since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: how to maintain security while providing access to the public.

Other bases began relaxing restrictions for public events last year. But Fort Meade, home of the National Security Agency, waited until this month to experiment with open access.

'Perfect' setting

"This setting is so perfect for this type of event," Installation Command Sgt. Maj. Earl Ware said as he surveyed the crowd and the pristine field. "If we could do it the way we really wanted to, we would open everything to the public, but we have to keep in mind the security of the installation."

Twilight Tattoo marked the second time this month that Fort Meade looked more like a park full of civilian picnickers than like a military base. The first time was for Meadefest, a Fourth of July celebration that once lasted all weekend. The Army scaled it back to one day this year, but thousands attended.

Because of the success of both programs, Fort Meade garrison commander Col. John Ives said he hopes to open more events to the public. He said he considers such outreach an obligation.

"We recognize that Fort Meade extends beyond the physical boundary, and that it's the community relations that makes Fort Meade what it is," Ives said.

Fort Meade began tightening its security measures in the summer of 2001. After the terrorist attacks, the base clamped down and now only allows civilians to enter with military escorts or Army permission. Other area military facilities that restricted access after the Sept. 11 attacks have re-examined their policies.

At the Naval Academy in Annapolis, visitors still are not permitted to drive onto the grounds without military identification, but they can walk on with a driver's license for public events. Two years ago, visitors needed military identification to drive onto Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County. But the base quietly changed the policy in the spring, and now civilians can get one-day vehicle passes to the post by showing their driver's licenses and car registration.

'As friendly as possible'

"We're trying to be as friendly as possible. Let's put it that way," Aberdeen spokeswoman Debi Horne said. "People wanted to come on, and we wanted them to come on."

Access to a military base still poses challenges

Army officials would not discuss specific security steps they took to prepare for Twilight Tattoo, but some changes were obvious. Roadblocks and barriers lined the route to the event.

Military police kept a close eye on traffic, directing everyone through a series of narrow turns to the field.

"It was a little scary navigating. Holy smokes, it was like going through a labyrinth," said Barbara Lawton, who brought nine elderly residents from the Morningside House in Laurel to watch the ceremony.

But Lawton, the assisted-living facility's enrichment director, only had to look at the faces of the residents next to her to see it was worth it.

Octogenarian Clifford Jackson, a retired master sergeant who served at Fort Meade, kept asking for handkerchiefs because the ceremony moved him to tears.

Meanwhile, Selwyn Gifford, 92, was eyeing the handsome, uniformed men and joking about which ones she wanted to take home.

"It's a beautiful sight. I'm getting more patriotic by the minute," Gifford said of the pageantry. "It should make us proud. Look at where we've come in 400 years."

The Twilight Tattoo tradition began more than 300 years ago as a "lights out" call, when a bugle and drum told the local pubs to turn off the taps so the British troops could get to bed.

If the event is open to the public next year, Lawton said, she plans to come back with her family.

"I don't know how many years they've had this," she said just before a cannon was fired, "but it breaks my heart to think I've missed it before."

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