Reserve unit trades New England cold for Okinawa heat
CAMP SCHWAB, Okinawa — Marine Lance Cpl. David Wharton dripped sweat as he stuffed piles of field gear in his pack.
The 25-year-old Boston native squinted as he looked up at the overcast sky.
There was no beating the heat.
“The climate’s definitely different here,” he said in his thick Boston accent. “I can’t remember being in a place this humid.”
Wharton’s reaction isn’t all that different from that of others arriving on Okinawa for the first time during the summer.
But unlike most Marines, Wharton never thought he’d end up serving here.
A reservist with 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, Wharton’s unit hails from Devens, Mass., with smaller reserve centers scattered throughout New Hampshire and Maine. This is the first time the battalion has been in Japan since the battle for Iwo Jima in 1945.
Marines of 1st Battalion, 25th Marines are filling the role of the infantry battalion sent to Okinawa for a six-month rotation under the Unit Deployment Program. With almost all active-duty infantry battalions just completing deployments to Iraq or currently deployed on Marine Expeditionary Units, the Corps’ leaders tapped the reservists for the job.
The battalion got word to mobilize Jan. 12 and two weeks later, reported for training to Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Notice of the deployment to Okinawa didn’t get passed on until Apr. 30. Two weeks ago, the battalion formed on Okinawa.
“A lot of people were surprised,” Wharton said of the deployment. “Everyone thought we were coming home.”
But the deployment wasn’t a big surprise.
The Marines expected a call after watching other reserve units packed out after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. As military operations around the world cranked up, they thought it likely was a matter of time.
“After Afghanistan started, we began to think our number could come up,” said. Marine Maj. Rich Russo, assistant operations officer.
But when it did, the timetable was short. Everything had to be packed out quickly. That’s when the Marines really began to pull together, said Capt. Thomas Danielsen, an operations officer.
“Some of the Marines ... would find excuses to not be at drills,” Danielsen said. “But they surprise you every time. The balloon went up and they were probably the first ones there. We weren’t struggling to track down bodies.”
New England-based Marines aren’t usually tasked with training or deploying to warm climates. They routinely take part in winter exercises in Norway and exercises in Canada. But this time they got an advance taste of hot weather. They trained in Fort Knox, Ky., in 2001 in sweltering conditions, Danielsen said. They also used the muggy conditions of the coastal Carolinas to prepare for this stint, which includes a training package planned for the Jungle Warfare Training Center at Okinawa’s Camp Gonzalves.
Still, they don’t expect every day to be spent on Okinawa. They’re also planning trips to Mount Fuji in mainland Japan and potential operations in the Philippines, Australia, Mongolia and South Korea.
They’re focused, too, on the possibility of Persian Gulf deployment.
“Being operational gives us a feeling that we’re more of a participant,” Russo said. “It’s better to be here with the 3rd Marine Division than back at base at Camp Lejeune.”
The deployment doesn’t come without sacrifice.
The Marines left behind jobs and studies at New England colleges and universities, Russo said. And departments back home are picking up the slack for the large number of police officers and firefighters in Okinawa with the battalion.
“Some businesses will be seriously hurt over this deployment,” Russo said. “Some might fold. It’s a big sacrifice but it’s very fulfilling. Every single Marine wants to be here.”
“We were just excited to get out of Lejeune,” said Lance Cpl. Curt Marshall, 20, from Boise, Idaho. Not a New England native, he’s a college student who drilled on the weekends.
“It’s a foreign country and a chance to do something different,” Marshall said. “We just decided this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“I’m looking forward to a mission,” he said. “I hope we get one. I hope we can go back and say we did something worthwhile — something to tell my kids about.”