Learning to forget at Camp Lejeune
By Sara Schonhardt
"Welcome home" signs adorn the chain-link fence leading into Camp Lejeune, the
Second Division Marine base in North Carolina where it seems that each day a
new batch of troops is returning from overseas combat tours. "Sergeant Whitney,
come meet your baby girl," one sign says.
Inside the base, people prepare a picnic for another homecoming party. Folding
tables go up under white event tents, hot dogs sizzle on a grill, a
cotton-candy machine starts spinning and Credence Clearwater Revival's Fortunate
Son fills the air.
It seems a fitting soundtrack for the story Sergeant Joe Buompastore has just
finished telling. The tent, he said, resembles the one at the reception after
he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor.
Since returning from Afghanistan in October, Buompastore has
struggled to find some normality on a Marine base faced with increasing
deployments and troops who are overextended. He is unsure of his next
assignment but eager to stay at Camp Lejeune, because for him, like many
marines, the base provides a cocoon he does not want to leave.
Buompastore is part of 1/6, 1st Battalion 6th Marines, a company known for
securing Ramadi, central Iraq, in 2006. "Before we left we kept hearing it was
one of the worst cities in Iraq," he said, drawing out the city's name so it
sounded more like Ram-aaaa-di. That year, Buompastore missed all the holidays.
After six months, the Marines extended his deployment as part of the
30,000-strong troop surge to Al Anbar province. He would have the same luck two
years later in Afghanistan.
"I never get a break," he said, sucking in a long breath of air that revealed
more than he could articulate.
In Iraq, Buompastore was a point man, which meant he led his squad on patrols.
After several months without any injuries, he became team leader. "We didn't
lose anybody. Nobody got hurt, not even a scratch. And then we got back and
were considered combat veterans," he said.
Buompastore's battlefield experience has not been as trouble-free as he lets
on. The extended deployments in both Iraq and Afghanistan took a toll on his
morale, as did the death of a fellow Marine in the firefight where he won his
medal for valor.
When recalling his most recent deployment, Buompastore talks easily about the
food (terrible), the heat (scorching), the infrequent showering (done by a pump
well). He hides the moments that provoke stronger emotion. Even getting him to
talk about the battle for which won the Bronze Star honor requires coaxing, and
when he does his words come out sounding mechanical.
Like many young but experienced soldiers, Buompastore, 24, whiplashes between
painful memories of battle and newfound suburban life - days spent spinning
around base blasting Linkin Park albums from his monster four-door Ford
pick-up, and nights at home with his Marine wife, Faye.
The trouble with this arrangement is its instability. The North Carolina base
replicates small-town life in America - there is a Burger King and Dunkin
Doughnuts, a shopping mall with a food court that fills at lunch with men in
khaki uniforms, and a liquor store that stocks US$150 bottles of Dom Perignon
for those wanting to splurge at the end of their deployments.
At 1/6's Alpha Company headquarters, men share stories about their families or
discuss weekend plans. They shuffle around metal desks filling out obligatory
paperwork. Computer screens hold images of smiling babies or leggy brunettes.
"I like to get in a little PT [physical training] in the afternoon," said
Buompastore, explaining a routine that starts at 6am when he takes attendance,
includes some PT, and then often ends 10 hours later, when he heads home to
make pork chops or mow the grass.
Occasionally, however, the sound of rifle fire cracks the silence, reminding
these men that the safety of the base is only temporary. Olive-green supply
trucks roll past the Dunkin Doughnuts, and men preparing for deployment leave
their desks to shoot heavy artillery.
After returning from Iraq, Buompastore spent his days the same way. At night he
courted Faye. The Marine settled back into life at Camp Lejeune just as
then-secretary of state Donald Rumsfeld was calling for more troops in
Buompastore's second deployment was grueling. When 1/6 arrived in southern
Helmand province they moved for three days without stopping. They carried all
their gear, around 68 kilograms of ammo, protective wear, and weapons, taking
breaks to change socks and ease their backs from their burdens. "I came back
skinny as hell," said Buompastore, whose already slender frame did not have far
Buompastore's family was not part of the American military tradition - his
grandfather had served in the Italian army and only one uncle was drafted to
fight in Vietnam - but his father taught him discipline, and Buompastore liked
the idea of joining the service. He chose the Marines, shortly after the
September 11, 2001, attacks because he knew they would provide the physical
challenge and mental restraint he wanted.
The Marine says he's proud to have done his duty, but he is also glad to be
home. When I ask if he wants to go back he says no. When I ask why, he pulls
from his wallet a picture of his wife.
Many Marines express unease about leaving their families and the safety of the
base for the battlefield. Raymond Downen, petty officer third class, said he's
eager to get the job done in Afghanistan and return to his children. Downen, an
x-ray technician, has never been deployed in the 14 years he has served as a
Marine. Because the war has been going on for so long, the Marines are now down
to "slim pickins", he said.
Some are equally reluctant to go off active duty. Corporal Nathaniel Harris,
who recently deployed to Afghanistan, said he never found pride in non-military
work, even when he worked for himself. "I definitely missed the responsibility
of leading a group of men," he said, comparing the base to a neighborhood where
other kids are always around to play.
Buompastore explained the other benefits of being a Marine - free dental and
health care, a decent salary and bonuses for extended deployments. "An extra
few months in Iraq meant four extra paychecks," he said.
When it comes to the challenges, however, Buompastore speaks with practicality
about saying goodbye to Afghan interpreters and village elders whose trust he
gained over the course of his deployment.
"It's not like you're going back there for vacation," Buompastore said, pausing
for affect. "Sometimes you have to learn to forget."
Learning to forget is not part of Marine training, but it might be one of the
best ways for dealing with life after battle. The base is part of that coping
mechanism. And at Camp Lejeune men know they're surrounded by others who have
seen friends wounded and killed, even if they don't have to say so.
Sara Schonhardt is a New York-based freelance reporter and former editor
for Asia Times Online.