Marines stand guard, greet public at Camp Lejeune’s main gate
April 10,2006

You can drive through the front gate at Camp Lejeune a hundred times and the sentries assess each oncoming car in seconds.

If safe, the sentries wave them in and, when appropriate, deliver a crisp, solemn salute.

They are the first line of defense at these posts, eight in all around the base; they are the first face of the Marine Corps to the general public that comes through. Sentries have to keep their cool even when the line of cars is stacked around the corner, as it often is at rush hour.

“We learn common courtesy and respect when we go through boot camp,” said Sgt. David Brown, watch commander.

It’s tough to stay vigilant for long hours, but the job’s gotten a little easier thanks to the new canopy that was completed more than a month ago. Not only are the sentries protected from sleet and rain and wind, but it helps them do their job better.

“There’s no glare off the windshield,” said Cpl. Christian Hernandez, an infantry Marine recently returned from Iraq who now serves as a gate sentry.

Their main job, of course, is security, and sentries know what to look for.

They also watch for motor vehicle violations, running down a mental checklist as each car approaches to check out inspection stickers, whether occupants are wearing a seatbelt, whether a radar detector is mounted under the dashboard.

They can spot all of this in seconds.

“We see everything,” said Brown.

A big infraction is the improper use of cell phones. The Department of Defense has ordered that no one driving a car on a DoD installation can use a cell phone unless pulled over or using a hands-free device. Some drivers will put their phone down as they approach the main gate, then pick it up after they pass through.

If the sentries spot a Marine breaking a rule, they will correct him or her on the spot — ask them to pull on a seatbelt or shut off the phone.

The sentries see amusing things too, like odd cars (one Camaro pulled in with a red hood, black fender, blue door and a white bumper, but it had a valid decal, so they let it pass) and fired-up veterans, like the retired Marine who drives a taxi cab and leans out the window shouting “Semper Fi!” to the young Marines standing guard.

Cars drive through with all sorts of messages scribbled on windows and side panels in write-on paint, notes of homecoming or “just married” joy.

Every day, at least one driver thinks to roll down the window and thank these Marines for guarding the base and for serving their country.

Some military families will drop off hot cocoa in the winter or Gatorade in the summer, moved by the way these sturdy Marines face the elements with no complaints.

“It’s very encouraging,” said Hernandez. “It lifts up your soul.”

The best part, Brown and Hernandez agree, are the children that come through. It’s not uncommon for a driver to thank the Marine on guard, only to be joined by a tiny voice from the backseat giving a baby “Oorah” or chirping, “Thank you!”

“One kid tried to give me his sippy cup,” said Brown, of a four-year-old boy reaching out from his car seat. “I said, ‘You need it, to get big and strong like me.’”