Welcoming the 1/1 Marines Back Home

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Story and Photos by Laura Dietz

It was seven months ago that the city’s adopted First Battalion, First Marines (1/1) deployed to the Middle East.  As part of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit its duties ttook the unit to at least five nations in the Middle East, as  both warriors and ambassadors for the United States.

Now they’re back.

The 1/1 Commander, Lt. Col. Craig Wonson, a native of Massachusetts, arrived with his battalion in the early morning hours of Sept. 29, coming into San Diego Harbor with almost 1,200 members of the battalion. He joked about landing at Del Mar like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the imagery too good to pass up.

On my arrival at Camp Horno, the 1/1’s home on the sprawling Camp Pendleton base, two companies had already returned. Wonson mingled with the families and made himself totally approachable to us civilians who had come down from Newport Beach, includings Tim Sloat, Krisztina Scheeff, myself and from HuntingtonBeach Col. B. B. Yarborough, USMC (Ret.), always with a camera in his hand to record the event. The anxious wives, some with parents, brothers, sisters and friends, waited and waited, and waited, for their loved ones. I could only imagine their patience running out.There is a specific order to the debarking, Wonson explained to me. Trucks, amphibious craft, etc. all have to be taken off in some orderly fashion, and on this day, as usually happens, there were delays that tested the mothers with children who were definitely ready for a nap.At one point I heard Lt. Col Wonson turn to someone and remark that having his men see their newborn son or daughter for the first time was the best part of the day. Indeed, there were quite a few from 1 to 6 months old. One of the wives, Mary Oldham, was visibly anxious even though this routine was nothing new to her. Mary, along with about 14 other wives, had been the recipients of hair makeovers through my efforts and the generosity of Nancy Johnson, owner of Shear Attitude Salon on Via Lido earlier this month, a big hit with the wives.

For the families, that last hour or two must have felt like a week by the time their Marines marched in and finally heard the magic words,” Fall out!”

Then there was the mad scramble as the men looked for signs, balloons, whatever to spot their loved ones.  It is a good thing that Marines are in great shape because a few of the women literally flew into their arms.

Children jumped, some too young to appreciate the meaning of the moment.  Mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, friends surrounded their loved one.

A few shed tears of joy but the smiles were everywhere, some waving small American flags that the Family Readiness Officer, Rick Andersen, had passed out.

Cameras clicked.  Marines held on to their loved one for minutes before letting go.  What a special moment that I had the privilege of witnessing and sharing with these families who are bearing the brunt of the sacrifices, stress, and financial hardships that come with putting your country first.

Some men had left with the image of their child still in a baby carriage to arrive home seeing their child running around. One father was meeting his daughter, who was an infant when he left. She was not sure who this man was. While the mother and grandmother coaxed on the child, the father picked up his older daughter who definitely knew that this was her father while the younger sister remained unsure of what to do.

The stories of families are endless from the child born with a serious birth defect, who later died, to the near death experience of one Marine mother during childbirth that I heard recently.  Taking care of the families so their Marine husbands can fight our nation’s enemies and not be distracted by difficult situations here at home should be every Americans civilian duty. This war is an American war, the longest in our nation’s history.

To bring some joy to a Marine family, send your tax deductible donation to:

Newport Beach Sunrise Rotary Foundation, PO Box 8113, Newport Beach 92660

(mark it “Marines”).  To get involved in this and the Wounded Warrior Battalion

efforts,  contact: Laura Dietz  at 714-606-8384.

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