Haiti looms for Marines just returning from Iraq

Marines just back from Iraq face possible mission in Haiti

March 04, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. -- Jessica Waterman's husband spent six months in Iraq as a Marine last year, missing the birth of their son, Christian, a year ago. Now she fears he will be deployed to the latest hot spot for American troops -- Haiti.

"I'd be pretty upset, yeah," said Waterman, 22, while dining with her family at Hilda's, a popular soul-food restaurant not far from Camp Lejeune, the sprawling Marine Corps base that dominates this coastal city. "It'll be aggravating because he just got back from Iraq, and we do have two children. He's missing out on their lives."

Lance Cpl. Sean Waterman, 21, a motor transport operator, said he understands his wife's concerns but has to perform his duty.

"It's a job," he said. "We gotta do what we gotta do. We knew what we was getting into when we signed the contract."

More than 500 Marines have been dispatched on a mission to provide security in the Caribbean nation after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was driven from office amid a rebel uprising. Eventually, 1,500 to 2,000 Marines are expected to be deployed in Haiti as part of an international force, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said.

Waterman said he knows a lot of Marines are quietly hoping they won't be sent to Haiti -- especially after returning from dangerous duty in Iraq, where almost 550 American military personnel have been killed since hostilities began last year.

Staff Sgt. Roy Johnson, 33, said he has heard many Marines complain about the frequency of deployments.

"The people that just came back, those are the ones that have already been trained, so they turn around and send them back," Johnson said. "Right now, it's a lot of people that are getting out [of the service] because of this."

Johnson, an air traffic controller who has been in the Marine Corps for 15 years, said the deployments have been hard on families, "especially the young ones, the corporals and the lance corporals."

He and his wife have four sons, ages 6, 8, 11 and 12. He said he doesn't think he'll be sent to Haiti because he has been told he's going to Iraq in October.

For many, the prospect of yet another deployment is about as appealing as war itself -- families are separated, leaving spouses and children behind to worry about their loved ones overseas. Meanwhile, local businesses that depend on the Marines suffer significant revenue losses.

Some fear that with the conflict in Iraq and deployments to Haiti, Jacksonville could soon resemble a "ghost town," with many Marines overseas and their spouses often going home to live with relatives for the duration of the foreign assignment.

Those affiliated with the military say that no matter how often deployments occur, they're always difficult emotionally.

"Civilians don't realize what these military wives go through," said Shannon Chandler, 29, who is divorced from a Marine but has relatives, including brothers, who have enlisted. "They just say, `Oh, you're a military wife, you're used to it,' but you never get used to it. It's hard."

Camp Lejeune has many programs designed to help Marines and their families cope with the stresses of military life. Kim Holmes is director of Marine Corps Family Team Building.

"We want to make it so that when the troops are out training, out fighting and doing their thing, they know that their families are taken care of back here," Holmes said. "Can you imagine trying to do anything and you're worried about your spouse or your kids?"

Pre-deployment briefings are offered to families, and Marines are given packets that remind them to designate someone to hold their power of attorney and to update their banking accounts and medical information, among other things.

"We try to hit the really important, high-priority issues, and we also touch the human side, the emotional aspect. We tell them it's ... natural to be scared, sad, angry," Holmes said.

Children also receive pre-deployment counseling, and reunion briefings are offered to families, Holmes said.

When Capt. Crystal Pelletier and her husband were stationed overseas last year, she in Iraq and he in Africa, her sister moved to Jacksonville to care for their daughter, Victoria, 6. Pelletier said her sister took advantage of services offered by Holmes' office, and she encouraged family members of the 175 Marines under her command to do the same.

A veteran who plans to retire in July after 20 years of service, Pelletier agrees that deployments are hard.

"It's stressful, especially when you're in the spin-up mode," she said. "We do an awful lot of waiting, not only about where you're gonna go but what's gonna happen with the rest of your life. It's the not knowing."

Holmes said she expects calls to her office to start increasing. From January to June last year, a 24-hour deployment information line recorded about 10,000 calls, she said. "Now, we might average four calls a day, but with this Haiti stuff we'll probably start to get more calls."

During deployments, Jacksonville bands together to show support. Nursing home residents knit afghans for the troops, fast-food restaurants donate gift certificates to children, and yellow ribbons adorn trees, mailboxes and businesses.

Inside Rocket's Barber Shop on Route 24 in Jacksonville, owner Tyrone Wilson has placed a huge yellow bow on an artificial tree.

"I'm friends with my customers, and I care for them," Wilson said. "Some of them are upset that they just got back and have had only a few months with their families, and now they might be sent to Haiti."

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