“Many were eighteen, and I was someone who might have known them socially, in another place and another time.”
I was born in Jacksonville, North Carolina, home of Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base. As a young girl I lived on base for several years after my mother married a Marine. I was a town girl before I was a Marine brat, so I went from the yellow bus full of kids making fun of the Marine green buses to one of the kids on those green buses.
Jacksonville is like most military towns. Littered with pawnshops, strip joints, car lots, and furniture stores. Wherever you go there are young men, looking lost, or out for something, or somewhere in between. They were not individuals, just one mass splintering up and down the highways, on foot or crammed into cars if they were lucky. They were often dismissed by townspeople as Jarheads, in an effort to maintain the illusion that they were not actually a part of the town.
I worked as ticket girl in a discount theater close to base when I was sixteen. The young Marines would come to the window to buy their tickets, and they would make remarks about me that I couldn’t fully comprehend back then. (We were much more naïve teenagers in the 80s.)
My girlfriends would get so indignant when they would say these things to us, when they would look at us that way, or whisper as they passed us along the endless conveyor belt of Jacksonville Mall.
Stupid Jarheads, they would say.
But there was something in me, even before I was a child on Camp Lejeune, that did not see them as one thing, but instead as individual men–or more aptly—as older boys. I was never able to be mean, snotty, or act above them like so many other teenage girls did. I don’t know exactly what made it different for me, but I’m glad for it when I look back on those years.
After I moved onto the base and became a military child, not just a child of a military town, it was as if I went through a portal into a strange world on the other side. Now I was living in this place where everything was uniform, from chaos to order. The young Marines marched and chanted, they saluted my car, and they were respectful at the base theater. And as I was growing older around them, I began to truly internalize how close in age we were. Many were eighteen, and I was someone who might have known them socially, in another place and another time.
Then on October 23, 1983, my perception once again deepened in meaningful and permanent ways. That day a powerful bomb was driven into the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. Over two hundred were killed, and their brothers were left with a brutal task—dig them out from a horrific tangle of concrete and metal.
The relationship between the town and the Marines Corps seemed to change that day as well. The Jarheads were now sons, brothers, best friends. The television and the papers brought us news of fallen eighteen and nineteen year-olds, of returning Marines with physical and mental wounds that would never be healed. In October of 1983, they were heroes, not Jarheads.
I recently returned to Jacksonville for the 30th anniversary of the Beirut bombing and was greatly relieved to see the constructed memorials, planted trees, and preserved memories. The town had not forgotten—it remained changed.
After the crocuses of April effortlessly break their ground, and May brings you to a high school graduation, perhaps you might look out into the face of the graduating class and remember they are the same as many of those who were lost in 1983. Perhaps you will see the young men the United States continues to send off to foreign mountains and deserts, sacrificing their lives in service. Perhaps then, you may consider the words “military child” in a whole new light.
Image credit: nukeit1/flickr
*Editor’s note: For purposes of this article, the author references only male Marines. This in no way is meant to diminish the service and sacrifice of our female Marines, both veteran and active-duty.