View Full Version : For Some, Storm Is Welcome Break Returning Marines Join Families Early

09-18-03, 06:25 PM
For Some, Storm Is Welcome Break
Returning Marines Join Families Early
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 18, 2003; Page A14

JACKSONVILLE, N.C., Sept. 17 -- Not many people in North Carolina were glad to see Hurricane Isabel veering toward land. But to the families of 130 Marine Reservists just back from an extended tour in parched Iraq, it didn't seem like bad luck at all.

As Camp Lejeune shut down to all nonessential personnel and prepared to ride out the storm, commanders let the returning Marines go home with their families at noon today, three days earlier than expected.

"They closed the base and let the guys go, so I say, 'Hooray for the hurricane!' " Nickie Wheeler, 39, of Centreville said as she prepared to drive out of town with her husband, Sgt. Keith Wheeler, in a minivan emblazoned with a sign, "My hero! Back from Iraq," on the rear window.

Stacey R. Warner, 31, of Round Hill said her husband, Sgt. Rob Warner, had not seen rain in 71/2 months. "He's going to get more than enough -- a hurricane of a homecoming," she said.

Isabel threatened to strike numerous military installations on the East Coast, beginning with Camp Lejeune and the New River and Cherry Point Marine air stations in North Carolina. Military spokesmen said the bases had moved some airplanes and helicopters out of the storm's path, fastened down loose equipment, readied emergency generators, distributed tanks of water and prepared volunteer units to help rescue civilians in the event of catastrophic flooding.

Camp Lejeune's commanders also ordered Marines to leave a recreational campground along the seashore, and some military families living off base headed for higher ground. A desk clerk at a Jacksonville motel said he was deluged with callers seeking rooms and asking for military rates. "We don't have military rates," he said. "This is a military town. Everyone is military."

The happiest contingent, by far, was the Bravo Company, 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. A reserve unit based at Fort Detrick, it was sent to Kuwait in February with the First Marine Expeditionary Force from Camp Lejeune and was among the first U.S. units to cross into Iraq in March.

After fighting its way to Baghdad, Bravo Company was sent south again, to Diwaniyah, and became a rapid reaction force responding to ambushes and attacks on regular Army units. It rolled back into Kuwait last month with all of its light armored vehicles but minus one Marine, who had been killed in a vehicle rollover.

After being airlifted from Kuwait to Cyprus to Germany, the 130 reservists arrived back in North Carolina on Tuesday afternoon.

"I'm so glad to be back, I could care less about coming into a hurricane," said Sgt. Wheeler, 37. "I'll probably run around in the rain. I might even take my clothes off."

During one stretch at the beginning of the deployment, Wheeler said, he went 71 days without a shower, using only baby wipes to sponge away the sweat and grit. When he tried to shave, the cream dried on his face in the withering heat. The only water he drank for months was bottled, and often it was so hot it tasted like it came out of a tea kettle.

"It's amazing what you take for granted, like trees and clouds," he said. "I haven't seen a cloud in a long, long time."

The reservists had not seen their families in a long time, either. Ten of their wives gave birth while they were away. The youngest of Wheeler's three children, 15-month-old Timothy, "thinks his Daddy is a telephone," Nickie Wheeler said.

After a 96-hour leave, members of Bravo Company have to be back at Camp Lejeune by 6 a.m. Monday to complete their medical and psychological debriefings. By then, the hurricane will have passed.

Still wearing his desert camouflage fatigues, Wheeler smiled through a gap in his front teeth -- the result of a softball game, not combat -- and listed some of the things he has been looking forward to: cold milk, ice cream, rain. There should be no lack of them in the days ahead.

2003 The Washington Post Company