February 14, 2008

Single Marines get special meal

Vets grill Valentine's Day dinner for local troops

Maggie Downs
The Desert Sun

TWENTYNINEPALMS MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER - The veterans chugged up the hill in the morning sunlight in a caravan of vehicles weighed down by groceries.

Once they reached the Marine base, they sliced opened boxes of vacuum-sealed pork ribs, rubbed them with spices, then slung them onto hulking black grills. They used hand-crank can-openers to empty cases of barbecue sauce and baked beans.

The Sun City Palm Desert Veterans Club and the Disabled American Veterans Club, Chapter 78 came together Wednesday for this, a pre-Valentine's Day dinner for single Marines.

They don't make a greeting card that expresses the admiration soldiers of war share. Maybe the best a 19-year-old war veteran can do is to joke around over a plate of ribs with an 83-year-old who's lived the same.

Lance Cpl. Jeremy Perez rubbed his belly and let out a small belch.

"Hey, Perez, you get enough?" Al Greco yelled from behind a charcoal grill.

"Any more, and I'd have to go to confession for gluttony," joked the 19-year-old from El Paso, Texas.

Greco smiled and flipped another line of ribs. "That's what we like to hear."

The wind was strong and relentless, rolling thick clouds of mesquite smoke off the grills. The vets cooked for hours, serving up nearly 1,000 pounds of meat.

"Come and eat, eat, eat," they shouted to every passer-by in camouflage.

The Marines piled their plates high like tottering Jenga games - cookies balanced on hot dogs balanced on potato salad balanced on beans.

"It's a little tough," baby-faced Justin Kopet said, tearing into some ribs.

He shrugged.

"This is probably the last home-cooked meal I'll have before I leave."

Kopet is returning to Iraq later this month.

One of the veterans ruffled Kopet's cropped hair and said, "Just remember - when somebody shoots, you duck."