TIRANA, Albania, -- Marines and Sailors with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, embarked aboard the USS Gunston Hall, spent April 24-25 beautifying a playground and installing drainage ditches at the Bethany Orphanage here.
As soon as the ship pulled into port, Lt. Jeff Augustin, the ship’s chaplain, began planning with Army Maj. Mark Berlenbach, the bi-lateral affairs officer with the Office of Defense Cooperation in Albania, to coordinate potential community relations projects. That’s when the idea was pitched for Marines and Sailors to help the local orphanage. Volunteers for the project knew it meant sacrificing some well-deserved time away from the ship and shipmates. “I don’t really call it sacrifice, because I enjoy doing it,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Terrell Nelson, a hospital corpsman with the USS Gunston Hall. “I don’t mind giving up some of my free time to go somewhere else and help somebody.” “We still had plenty of time to experience the local culture,” said Sgt. Timothy Clements, a rifleman with Charlie Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 24th MEU. “I think it’s worth it, it always makes you feel good to help those in need. It’s always better to give than to receive.” Nelson and Clements were not alone. More than 120 troops volunteered for the project, twice the amount of available seats. Unfortunately, that surplus of volunteers was turned away, said Lt. William Gritton, the chaplain for Combat Logistics Battalion 24, 24th MEU. “Our turnout for this was really good,” he said. Before they arrived, standing water eroded the foundation of a building and weeds ravaged the orphanage’s playground. Over the course of two days, Marines and Sailors renovated the playground by pulling weeds and applying a tarp to prevent future weeds. They also installed a drainage ditch to prevent flooding and built and engineered another that redirects water away from one of the building's foundations to a sewer, preventing further erosion. “These projects, due to budget constraints and labor force, would never have become a reality in the foreseeable future if not for the Marines and Sailors assistance,” Berlenbach said. Today, a drainage system redirects water away from that same building and the playground is absent of weeds. The Albanian Armed Forces also aided in the project by providing shovels, building materials, transportation and logistics for the projects, explained Berlenbach. “When I told them what we were doing, they were all about helping us out,” he said. Currently, the USS Gunston Hall is back underway on its scheduled deployment. The 24th MEU, partnered with the Navy's Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group, is currently deployed as a theater reserve and crisis response force capable of a variety of missions from full-scale combat operations to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.