Article ran : 06/29/2003
Friends make welcome special
Lance Cpl. Laith Clemente, a radio technician, was supposed to be in his brother's wedding party Friday, but Liberian rebels had other plans.

As just one of the 7,000 members of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade who returned from a five-month deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Clemente was among the 1,200 Marines and sailors of 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment aboard USS Kearsarge who were diverted to the west African nation of Liberia in case they were needed to reinforce or evacuate the U.S. Embassy.

The added week afloat meant that he could no longer be a part of his brother's wedding, and that his family could not be there to greet him due to the ceremony.

But four of his Pennsylvania high school friends who are juniors at Penn State University were determined to make sure he wasn't alone. Seth Bishop, 20; Derek Bernier, 19 and 20-year old twins Joli and Jani Glantz came to Camp Lejeune to celebrate his return Saturday and his 21st birthday today.

"His parents called for a welcome home party and everybody was planning to come down, but that all changed when his ship was turned around," said Bishop, who carries one of Clemente's extra dog tags on his key chain.

"We didn't want him to be alone after coming all this way," Jani said.

"Laith is a really good friend of ours, and we know he'd do the same for us," Joli added.

But all four friends were on a vacation at the Glantz family summer home in A Thousand Lakes, N.Y., and kept missing Clemente's calls home from the Kearsarge.

"We kept talking to his parents on the phone and they kept talking to him," Bishop said.

So when they learned of his plight, they drove home Thursday night to State College, Pa., arriving at about 3 a.m., and then to eastern North Carolina on Friday night. They arrived about 5 a.m. Saturday, just hours before Clemente was due to return to Camp Lejeune.

"We alternated driving between the guys," Jani said.

"We probably put in over 1,000 miles in the last 48 hours," Bernier said.

They planned to decorate a hotel room in Jacksonville to celebrate Clemente's triumphant return, but time was short.

"When we got about an hour away, we started blowing up balloons so they'd be ready when we got here," Joli said. "The car was filled with balloons when we arrived."

The entire experience means a great deal to them, and they shared everything from Clemente's recall while home on leave at Christmas, through the war and now his return.

"We were actually sitting with him at Denny's when he got the call to go to Iraq," Bernier said. "He missed New Year's Eve and had to cut his vacation short."

"Nobody really felt like eating after that," Joli said.

Normally these college students don't watch the international news very closely, but over the past several months they were looking for Clemente's unit on television and the Internet. On campus, they were exposed to a variety of opinions on the war.

"It was kind of weird on campus, but we definitely had a flag on our door," Jani said.

"It gave us a different perspective when people spoke against the war because we had a friend over there," Bishop said.

But during the war, their primary concern was getting information. Each time someone received a letter from Clemente, all the friends would get together and share it.

They made it through tough times by supporting each other during the battle around the town of An Nasiriyah when 20 Marines from Clemente's sister unit, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, were killed in ambushes and during a friendly fire incident.

"He'd send a letter that everything was OK, but two days later they moved 200 miles into An Nasiriyah," Bernier said. "For all we knew, he could have been right there on the bridge."

"My mom said she got more gray hairs this year from Laith than from any other one person," Joli said.

After a quick trip to the Dollar Store, the group was decked out with multiple temporary stick-on tattoos of the American flag. Bernier sported a stars-and-stripes tie that couldn't be more patriotic.

"He's changed since high school," Bishop said about Clemente. "Now he's a little more conservative."

"He dresses nicer," Joli said.

"Yeah, he tucks his shirt in," Bishop joked.

"But he definitely still knows how to have a good time," Jani said.

Saturday, they waited for several hours next to pair of red and white striped tents under a Carolina blue sky. They caught sight of Clemente striding across a parking lot with a huge smile plastered on his face.

Tears erupted from the twins as all five friends joined in a group hug.

"It's great to be back, and I'm happy to be home," Clemente said. "There's so much stuff on my plate yet to do before I can go home. I missed the simple stuff, like showers and not waiting in line. When I got off the (air-cushioned landing craft) I was amazed at how green it is here."

Clemente will likely have a couple of days off and then back to work before he's allowed to take 30 days leave. The group is planning to spend Independence Day at home in State College, Pa., and then make another trip to Glantz family summer home in New York.

Contact Eric Steinkopff at or 353-1171, Ext. 236.