Troop families cope on 'quiet front' - together

As leathernecks from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit dug into the sands south of Kandahar, their friends and families back home in Jacksonville were busy with a deployment all their own: launching the town's Christmas flotilla on the New River.

Thousands of people, sloops, and yachts turned out along the edge of the river near Onslow Bay on Saturday to embrace, as much as possible, a sense of Yuletide normalcy.

In wartime it's the "quiet front" that can be toughest to endure, and in few places is the yearning for family connections more pronounced at the moment than in this town in the piney woods of North Carolina. Some 85 percent of Jacksonville's population is affiliated with the Marines. To cope with a deepening anxiety, the wives of the men from Camp Lejeune, many of whom are now shouldering front-line duty in Afghanistan, are leaning more than ever on mutual-support networks.

While this battle-toughened town is used to sending troops off to war, many of the young spouses are confronting the emotions of danger and separation for the first time, and they're seeing husbands and friends and neighbors get involved in a conflict whose duration is unknown.

"For many, it's the first deployment that a lot of people are having trouble dealing with right now," says Wendy, whose husband, Mitch, is a marine pilot with the 26th, now flying "beans, bullets, and band-aids," into Afghanistan's turmoil. "They may not have been really prepared to have their husband being shot at. I'm a little more experienced, but I'm definitely praying more."

From Da Nang to Beirut, it's marines from Jacksonville who usually end up getting into the thick of things. Often called "America's 911" and "the president's own," they've had tragedies along with victories: Along the main strip in Jacksonville are planted Beirut Memorial trees, in honor of the 241 marines who died in the 1983 bombing of a barracks in Lebanon.

When everyone is new in town

Bracketed by tobacco and sweet potato fields and the Atlantic Ocean, Camp Lejeune has made Jacksonville a melting pot. Today, most of the population of this old farming town comes from elsewhere.

"Coming from the border towns and the big cities, from the barrios and the Boston suburbs, the marines are truly representative of America," says Walt Ford, editor of Leatherneck, a Quantico, Va.-based magazine about marines. "And they usually end up landing in Jacksonville...."

Despite Jacksonville's military mien, it can also be a lonely place. For young wives fresh in from Stockton, Calif., or Trenton, N.J., all the assurances in the world may not make them ready for the first deployment. If they haven't had time to make friends, many of them end up staying in the barracks, watching TV, and feeling miserable.

To help, there are monthly volunteer calls and regular wives' cafes. More experienced military wives often seek out the "new wives" to take them shopping or bring them to functions.

And for single soldiers now overseas, older women are stepping in as penpals, keeping them appraised by e-mail about news, gossip, and opinions on the homefront.

"Sure, the wives are scared, but they're just as proud as scared," says Mr. Boehm. "For a lot of them, what they saw in their men was exactly this kind of penchant for action, this fearlessness, the whole macho thing."

Still, the tension here has only been growing since Sept. 20, when, nine days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the 26th shipped out on a planned "float" through the Mediterranean, only to be diverted to the Arabian Sea.

They became America's first picture of troops leaving, as cameras lined up at the quay at Morehead City, from where the USS Bataan left anchor.

"It was a different kind of good-bye," says Wendy. "At that time, we weren't sure that Mitch was going to Afghanistan, but we knew this would be a float like no other."

To be sure, this is a town that is more peaceful in times of war. Indeed, during the Gulf War, people complained about all the big deployments - they were tough on the local economy.

But even in times of war, this low-lying town of barracks and discount furniture dealers still boasts its fair share of Old Glory tattoos stamped on local biceps. Shaved bald and taught to be one of a team, it's hard for many ex-marines to leave the area even when they return home from duty.

"There's a jarhead on every corner in this town," says Patrick Carroll, a New Yorker who served from 1978 to 1984. "Before this all happened, there were lots of warriors without a war running around."

And that can lead to trouble. Local cop logs tend to be filled with marines getting into scraps with the law.

But Jacksonville isn't as rough-and-tumble as it used to be, when the main strip downtown looked like 42nd Street in New York, filled with neon lights advertising lounges and "gentlemen's clubs."

Whole family is enlisted

The days when the military was mostly comprised of young, single teenagers is largely over. In keeping with the tenor of a new military where, increasingly, marines have families, the downtown has been cleaned up.

Now, hundreds of kids scramble for candy on the docks where the Christmas flotilla is moored, even as their mothers eagerly await news and opinions from their spouses on the front.

In their e-mails, many marines are reminding the ones back home the importance of holding down the homefires. "If it weren't for you doing your part at home, I couldn't be here doing this," one marine recently wrote to his wife from Kandahar.

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