Marines Celebrate Holidays Before Shipping Out

Marines are among the first service members heading to Afghanistan as part of President Obama's new troop surge. Hundreds have already left their base at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina, and many more are spending the holidays preparing to deploy. Catherine Welch of member station WHQR reports.

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By Christmas morning, 1,500 Marines will have deployed to Afghanistan as part of President Obama's troop increase and more are on the way.

Catherine Welch of member station WHQR stopped by a Christmas party for a Marine unit that's preparing to ship out from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

CATHERINE WELCH: In just a few weeks, 200 or so Marines will say goodbye to their families for another deployment. They are members of a Combat Logistics Battalion. Their ultimate destination: Unknown. For now, they're celebrating the Marine's version of a company Christmas party.

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #2: Doing good. You, sir?

WELCH: The battalion's officers have traded their battle uniforms for aprons. They're serving up the ham, turkey and stuffing. Major Keith Owens is the battalion's executive officer. Although at this moment, he's just in charge of the salad.

KEITH OWENS: Just before the holidays, having our dinner.

WELCH: Owens has only missed one Christmas in his 17-year career. He knows that's not typical. He's been telling his men to spend the holidays preparing for the deployment, but not to get caught up in the fact that they'll soon ship out.

OWENS: Why make you it worse while you're here? I said, oh, well, it's me, he's going to be gone. I said, just enjoy it while you're here. It doesn't do you any good to dwell on it now.

WELCH: Next apron over is Lieutenant Jim Fetner(ph). He's the battalion's dentist.

JIM FETNER: Hey, sergeant major, how you doing?

Man #2: Good. How are you?

OWENS: I'm doing great. Merry Christmas.

WELCH: He's slopping huge slices of ham and turkey on people's plate. For him, this next deployment times out perfectly.

FETNER: My wife's birthday, I'm going to get my wife's birthday right when I get back, unless we get extended or something. So, God was looking out for me absolutely. He set that up perfect. Hey, guys, Merry Christmas.

WELCH: The food line stretches all the way down the dining hall: kids and wives and Marines and not a uniform in the line. The Marines didn't have to wear them to the party.

JESSE ANDREWS: I've missed numerous Christmases.

WELCH: Midway down the line Staff Sergeant Jesse Andrews holds his baby girl as he tries to remember how many holidays he spent away from home.

ANDREWS: Probably six or seven, so it's been interesting.

WELCH: This combat logistics battalion is like a floating 911. They will patrol the globe on a Navy ship until there's a call for help, then they could head anywhere including Afghanistan. Once that work, their job is to maintain vehicles and keep Marines on the ground stocked with everything, from beans to bullets, to Band-Aids. Andrews is grateful that this year they don't have to move until after the holidays.

ANDREWS: It's nice. I should be able to spend some time at home with family and friends, you know. There's a lot of us that didn't get that opportunity. So, it happens and that was part of the job.

WELCH: He's talking about some friends of his. They are in units that have just left for Afghanistan.

ANDREWS: Definitely a lot of buddies are deployed right now.

WELCH: So, will you have a turkey leg for them?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANDREWS: I'll try to. It depend how much food is left up here.

WELCH: There is plenty of food. Further down the line, five-year-old Melanie Modas(ph) stands patiently with her mom waiting for her dinner. Her dad's the unit's combat cop. He's over at the table holding his infant son. Melanie, wearing a red party dress is excited to talk with Santa.

MELANIE MODAS: My granny told me to tell Santa Clause to get me a Zhu Zhu pet for Christmas, a Princess and a Frog tent, something for baby brother too.

WELCH: She's never known of Christmas without her dad. But the members of this combat logistics unit are well aware that other Marines have been rolling out of Camp Lejeune by the hundreds in the weeks before Christmas. Still, these Marines are here with family.

Unidentified Man #4: Merry Christmas.

WELCH: Watching their kids beam as Santa walks into the room ready to get his orders for Christmas morning.

For NPR News, I'm Catherine Welch.

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