DJIBOUTI CITY, Djibouti (March 27, 2010) --
As servicemembers from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit scaled mountains, shot an array of weapons, and learned to survive in the deserts of Djibouti, Africa, several Marines and Sailors were given an opportunity to break from their training for something the Marine Corps sees as a critical part of their deployment as well - volunteering in local communities of the countries they train in.
Here in Djibouti City the Marines and Sailors were able to volunteer at a local orphanage twice in recent weeks as part of a community outreach program organized by The Enduring Chapel of Camp Lemonier, which is the military church aboard Camp Lemonier, a joint military base used by the U.S. and several foreign militaries. The project is set up to allow servicemembers assigned to 24th MEU to pay weekly visits to schools caring for local orphans, in an effort to help strengthen partnerships between the U.S. military and the local community.
“We are bridging the gap between the [Djibouti] locals and the U.S. military more and more everyday,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Norman Otters, religious program specialist assigned to Camp Lemonier. “The 24th MEU’s contribution of volunteers just helps us that much more in getting to know the locals and with helping out wherever we can.”
The chaplain staff of Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 24th MEU, sought out and coordinated with Camp Lemonier staff to allow Marines to contribute to these community projects during the MEU’s pre-scheduled bilateral and sustainment training exercises in Djibouti.
“[We] wanted the Marines to leave a footprint in Djibouti that was more than just training out of a forwarding operating base (FOB), and give them a more fulfilling experience by taking care of children and putting some smiles on their faces,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason L. Soderquist, religious program specialist, Headquarters and Support Company, BLT 1/9, 24th MEU. “It is probably one of the best experiences for some of the young Marines and Sailors and to show a different part of the world that Americans do care and are willing to help.”
The orphanage project split the volunteers into two groups. One group visited an orphanage caring for newborns babies to toddlers; the second group traveled to an orphanage that cares for children from six years old to teenagers.
The Djibouti Community Outreach Baby Orphanage houses and cares for more than 40 orphaned children from Djibouti City. More than a dozen Marines received hands-on experience feeding, bathing, and changing diapers for newborns and toddlers.
“I never thought on this deployment I would get the chance to pick-up a baby, feed them, and put them to sleep,” said Cpl. Estaban Leon, a mechanic for the Motor Transport Platoon, BLT 1/9, 24th MEU. “It was shock to see how these little kids were eager to see us. It is unfortunate that most of them are orphans, but I was glad I can give them a few hours of my time and attention they deserve.”
With little time and a few toys, the orphanage made the most of the Marines’ help and company.
“These kids don’t have much to call their own, but I was still able to have fun with them,” said Lance Cpl. David Lewis, a motor transport operator also assigned to the Motor Transport Platoon. “We had the chance to draw with the little kids using my field notebook. The children drew me several sketches for keepsake.”
As Marines cradled children to sleep for the evening, the second group prepared for a showdown on a soccer field at the National School for the Protection of Children, which provides housing for abandoned children and teaches them occupational skills.
Marines donated soccer balls for a quick exhibition for the students’ required daily physical activity. The school’s soccer field had no turf, no marking lines, no nets, and most students played in sandals; regardless, the children made it their haven of fun.
“It’s amazing how these kids live with what they have,” said Cpl. Everado Estrada, a water technician assigned to the Engineer Platoon, Combat Logistics Battalion 24, 24th MEU. “There is no other place I’d rather be right now than with these kids.”
What started as a small group of kids kicking the ball around with the Marines quickly grew as the excitement drew more students out from their dormitories anxious to get in on some competitive action.
“There has been a long relationship with the military coming to play basketball, rugby, baseball, and other sports at our school,” said Mohmed Daud, a student living at the school. “We have met several military members from everywhere coming to play and visit.”
Not all the children had the chance to play soccer with the Marines, but one Marine sergeant left a token of thanks he hopes all of the kids to remember.
“I bought a soccer ball and intended to give it to the school, but when I saw that the younger kids didn’t get a chance to play, I went to the smallest child there and gave it to him,” said Sgt. Martin Hernandez, a maintenance chief for the Motor Transport Platoon, BLT 1/9, 24th MEU. “I wanted to give something to the kids for all of them to enjoy. The Marines enjoyed their time out here and saw first hand a different way people live and grew up. It was an eye-opener.”
The interaction gave both the Marines and the children a better perspective on each other’s lives, and helped meet the goals of the community outreach program. There are tentative plans for more visits to occur in the coming weeks.
“From the children’s standpoint, they can see the American military doing something other than [fighting and shooting] and from our standpoint we get to see and learn about another part of the world and how they live,” said Navy Lt. Scott Cauble, chaplain, H&S Co., BLT 1/9, 24th MEU. “Even though it’s only a few hours spending time with children, our Marines have been profoundly affected."