Marine Town, USA

My wife was shocked and understandably angry when our 19 year old son, Justin, informed us of his intention to enlist in the the United States Marine Corps Reserves. Maybe it was the man in me, but my own shock was tempered by an inner voice saying, "I wish I were that brave when I was his age".

Justin had told us that being a law officer was his dream. He was attending a local university looking forward to a degree in criminilogy. An a acquaintence of mine, Bob, is a US Marshall. He had advised Justin not to expect a degree to guarantee a job in that field.

"Specialize", he told him. "Either learn computers or finance or get some 'real world' police experience".

Justin signed up and was scheduled to report to Parris Island after his sophomore year.

We didn't think he would take Bob so seriously. Justin's first choice was to become an MP in the Marines. We wondered how 'safe' it was. After all, MPs were getting killed by roadside bombs and snipers as much as the 'real' solders. He enlisted and left for Parris Island, SC in May of this year.

As we said goodbye, I knew my baby boy was going to change.

During his time in basic training, we could communicate only through letters. No phone calls. He could take only the clothes on his back and his eye glasses. That was it. We received a form letter from the batallion commander warning us not to send anything other than letters and personal photos unless otherwise informed.

Through his letters, we found out that the had actually selected his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) as 0311 (rifleman). He was a 'grunt'. He was part of a fire team. These are the men who engage the enemy directly. They LOOK for a fight and will run to the sound of gunfire. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, and my wife was crying.

After 13 long weeks, it was time for graduation. We met our other son at the Savannah/Hilton Head airport for the graduation. As we drove onto the recruiting depot, we could not help but be impressed by the professionalism and courtesy of the sentries, officers we passed by and recruits whom we saw marching past.

"Good morning, Sirs. Good morning, Ma'am."

"How are you today, Sir? Can I help you?"

"Welcome to Parris Island".

During the emblem ceremony (which was held indoors) we could not get close enough to tell where Justin was. Anyway, they all looked the same. The standard issue "portholes" that a lot of them wore for eyeglasses made it even more difficult. The ceremony was simple and elegant. After dismissal we were finally able to meet our son.

I broke down as I spotted him. The 30 lbs he lost and the new demeanor worked as a clever disguise for the teenager we said goodbye to 3 months before. In that time, he had turned 20. We were warned not to send birthday cards since mail call would have resulted in a barracks—wide hazing for days. He had advanced much more than just that one year in his young life.

We met his Drill Instructors. These men ranged in age from 23 to 25. Two of them had served two tours in Iraq. I was almost too shy to approach them when Justin introduced us to them. For the first time, he could say, "I" and not be yelled at.

After a 10 day leave, Justin reported to Camp Lejeune, NC and the School of Infantry. At least this time he had weekend leave and could call us every Friday. He told us each week how the physical work was much tougher than boot camp. Marches ('humps") of 10 miles or more with full armor, weapons and equipment in the humid North Carolina summer.

Not everyone could hack it. I felt so sorry for those boys who volunteered for the duty and had to give it up. But that's the Marines. They don't allow you to take on a duty you cannot perform. Some of them were re—assigned. Some were rotated back to the beginning of the training schedule. Some were mustered out.

Each week, I grew prouder of my son. He was hanging in there. He was doing it. He was sore, tired and had suffered some injuries, but he was progressing. His voice filled with excitement when he told us that the first sergeant had selected him to train with the SAW (squad automatic weapon) because he showed he could carry the extra load.

This time when graduation rolled around, it was a more solemn and simple occasion. The airport at Jacksonville NC is so small it has but one short runway and only one airline flying regional jets and turboprop aircraft.

As we approached the gates, we were met by several fully armed sentries with rifles "alert to the dirt". Again, the courtesies extended set us at ease.

"Good morning, Sir. May I see some ID?".

We drove past the memorial for the the Marine Airmen (consisting of two huge
helicopters) to the place where we got our passes. Again, more courtesies, a search of the car and a

"Have a great day, Sir, Ma'am", from a young sergeant.

Signs informed us of the graduation site for ITB (infantry training batallion). Along the way we passed by simple living quarters, buildings for training, displays of ordnance, the recreation center. A simple sign — 5mph when passing troops — seemed almost quaint. The sounds of Marines training filled the air on this sunny morning.

We parked the car and walked to the small parade deck where the ceremony was being rehearsed. Again, we could not pick out Justin. We just took our seats in the bleachers. About 100 young men would graduate this day from "Grunt University". As the ceremony drew closer, officers began to appear. Young officers. Tall and short. From Lieutenant to Captain in rank.

After the final, "Aye, Sir! Oooh—RAH!", we again found Justin. He was a little more tanned and seemed somehow a bit taller.

Maybe I just think of him as larger than life. He told us he had to change into civilian clothes since he was going home. Some of the active duty soldiers were to report to their next assignment... more training. He wanted to say goodbye. We told him to take all the time he needed.

We saw many Marines in the "Service Alphas" (the green coat and pants with the round cap). This meant they were to report to their new duty. Justin told us that most of them were going to the 3/8th regiment (Third Batalion, Eighth Marine Regiment).

"The three—eight just got back from Iraq. They lost 97 guys in their last tour."

We could only respond with silence.

As we left the base, we decided to drive around a bit in Marine Town (not an official name, just mine). As we drove past the off—base living quarters, we say dozens, maybe hundreds of sheets hanging on the fences separating the housing from the highway.

"Welcome back, LCpl. Johnson"..."We love you SSgt. Gomez!".

Justin told us that these were for the three—eight. I wondered where the
97 missing sheets were. Did their wives and family join in the celebration? The sheets went on for at least a mile, until we ran out of fence. We turned back towards town.

The names flashed by too quickly for me to remember. How happy those who greeted their men must have been.

How sad those who did not must be.

As we drove to a restaurant to get something to eat, we passed by countles business marquees thanking the troops for their sacrifice and resolve. Do they ever get used to it? Does the town ever take them for granted? What is it like to see so many young Marines on a daily basis?

A Jeep Wrangler beside us held a young mother with her baby in the car seat next to her. As she drove past, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I saw the bumper sticker.

"My other ride is a United States Marine".

As we switched planes in Charlotte, I smiled as Justin was thanked by strangers for "being there for us". Unlike the time we picked him up from boot camp, he was not in uniform. But his sea bag, camouflage luggage and T—shirt gave him away.

I began to think... no one but the family of a Marine knows what this is like. They don't see the young men and women who some think of too stupid to get a 'real job', casting their lot with the heroes of Iwo and Inchon, ready to walk in their footsteps.

I have visited Germany on several occasions. The plant I would travel to was directly across the street from the main gate of the concentration camp at Dachau. During one trip, I visited the camp.

Nothing was held back. Photos and descriptions told the story of every atrocity that was committed there. The crematorium still stands. One of the managers at the plant served as our tour guide. He was appropriately solemn in his translations.

I asked him how it felt to describe what went on there. He told us that, as school children, every student in Bavaria is required to make a field trip to Dachau at least twice and must write a report on it.

"No one wants to forget what happened. We can't deny it. It's part of our history".

Part of their history. The USMC, the US Army, the US Navy... they're part of our history. I wonder what would happen if we required our students to visit a Camp Lejeune or a Fort Bragg or a Pearl Harbor. What would happen if more people experienced first—hand the life of a Marine, soldier or sailor.

See these men and women in their military garb. Watch them perform their close order drills. Experience the respect and honor they extend to unknown civilians because it is their code and they are sworn to uphold it.

They respect themselves, their uniforms, their corps, their superiors and those whom they protect.

They are at our service.

Get to know them.