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Camp Pendleton changed by 10 years of constant war

November 25, 2011 |  8:45 am


When Marine Major-Gen. Charles “Mark” Gurganus returned to Camp Pendleton recently after an absence of several years, he had an immediate impression of the sprawling base.

“It’s changed a lot,” said Gurganus, who will take command next year of Marines in Afghanistan.

Ten years of constant war have profoundly changed the look of the 125,000-acre base -- and altered the lives of 42,000 active-duty Marines and sailors and their families.

New construction, funded by the doubling of the Pentagon budget and the Obama administration’s economic stimulus program, is seemingly everywhere, including a new commissary under construction that promises “147,000 square feet of shopping excitement under one roof.”

There are faux villages populated by “role players” to help Marines train for the dangers of patrolling in hostile villages, including the buried bombs that are the No. 1 killer of U.S. and Afghan forces.

A part of the base that had been leased to tomato farmers for decades has been turned into a village modeled after Now Zad, a onetime Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan.

To enhance the reality, “smell generators” provide the aroma of burning charcoal, cooking food, gangrenous wounds and manure. Some 225 cameras film the action as Marines learn to react to uncertainty and attack.

Early in the Iraq war, the Marine Corps upgraded its family support system, hiring full-time family readiness officers, replacing a system in which the task of helping a battalion’s “stay-behind” spouses was often given to an overworked sergeant. Marine brass realized that the old system was inadequate to help families cope with the stress of repeated deployments.

“I don’t know where we’d be if we hadn’t instituted the family readiness programs we have,” said Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

At five schools on base -- run by the Oceanside and Fallbrook school districts -- teachers and principals have learned to encourage children to talk about their deployed parents and to share their fears.

“It’s a conversation you have to have,” said Rashell Parkhurst, kindergarten teacher at Santa Margarita Elementary School.

In Parkhurst’s classroom, there is a bulletin board called the Hero Wall. Parents who are home from deployment have yellow stars. Parents who are deployed have red hearts.

Some of the younger children have a rough idea of why their parents are away. Others do not.

“I just know he took his rifle,” said 5-year-old Dominic Humphrey when asked why his step-father, Lance Cpl. Cortney Gates, is in Afghanistan.

It’s a rare Marine family that doesn’t know a Marine or sailor killed in combat. The stress quickly filters down to children.

“They’ve had life experiences that not very many 5-year-olds have had,” said principal Pat Kurtz. 

-- Tony Perry at Camp Pendleton

Photo: Hero Wall at Santa Margarita Elementary School at Camp Pendleton shows military parents who are currently deployed and those who are home. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times