22 December, 2007

Christmas at the USO, 2007 Edition

I was all set to write a light post about yesterday's shift at the USO... the absent-minded Marine and his long-suffering buddy, the Navy captain's reply when I told him "I suppose I could've mistaken you for a senior chief, but there's something distinct about the way captains walk in here..." And then there was the overheard TINS--moonshine, redlining unregistered motorcycles on mountainous country roads, and simultaneous APBs in three states.

But the words just wouldn't arrange themselves properly...

...Because many of yesterday's visitors didn't act like typical Marines reveling in the downtime stretching ahead of them. The prospect of being out from under the watchful eyes of officers and NCOs didn't seem to quite relax them. It was subtle, but undeniable. I was puzzled a bit, until I mentally assembled everything I overheard and saw, and realized what was happening.

Instead of simply smiles and hearty laughter (of which there was plenty), I will carry from yesterday's shift the memory of Marines headed home for Christmas on pre-deployment leave. Swelled with the usually holiday busyness, the walls of the facility reflected laughter and easy conversation, and holiday cheer was in clear evidence. But it was somewhat muted, too.

Small groups gathered in the kitchen, quietly discussing recent training experiences and comparing notes with those from different squads/classes. Humor with the darkest of bites lurked around the edges, and tactical words and acronyms floated through the air at unexpected times.

More than usually, they moved with quiet confidence and deliberation, graceful and with less of the free and easy casualness regularly displayed out-of-uniform. Warm expressions of gratitude for a kitchen stocked with snacks, pies and pastries abounded, but the standard puppy-like enthusiasm was less in evidence.

Out in the main room, one Marine gathered a crowd by picking up a guitar and singing hearfelt Country music songs of longing, love, and home. Though their families' warm embraces were hours away, they were obviously already mentally deployed: focused, ready, and psychologically distanced.

I wonder what their families' reactions will be to a son/brother who is not 100% "there" this Christmas, who is a bit more serious, focused on a distant horizon the family cannot see. It must be hard for those expecting Christmas to be a time to reinforce bonds before sending a piece of their hearts across the sea... for they will find their loved ones have already moved just out of reach. I suppose that's a good thing--those Marines were obviously confident, thoroughly-trained, bonded, and ready for the mission--but it can't be fun for those who love them.

Volunteering at the USO, I tell myself that I'm "doing my part," since I'd make a terrible servicemember. But yesterday I was painfully aware again of the imbalance, aware that in a few short weeks they would be dealing with life and death... and I'd still be safely stateside, handing out smiles and snacks at the USO.

There really is no way to balance that account, and the gratitude continues to accrue.


Okay, I'll give you one little vignette to leaven the weight of that last line:

When an "Army Strong" commercial came on the TV, the Marines talking in the kitchen lifted their heads and watched intently as soon as they heard the opening notes of the theme. I teased, "Thinking of switching?"

They were honestly appalled, and a chorus of protests soon arose. I assured them with a smile that I knew my audience, and to the laughter of his comrades, one piped up, "Yeah, I might sign up with them... when I'm old and tired!"

Gotta love those Marines. As Lex once said, they believe quite impossible things about themselves, which often leads to the accomplishment of quite impossible things.

For their sake and our sake, may they continue to prove that true in coming months.

P.S. This covers some of what I suspect those Marines have been doing recently.

UPDATE: A friend of my mother's knows several of the deploying Marines and validates my perceptions. She reports that in many ways they'd rather deploy immediately, fearing leave will be a distraction; they've mentally flipped the "deployment switch" and are already "gone."