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High op tempo leaves some Marines pondering departure, causes concern for Corps' leaders

5 Apr 2004 | Sgt. Matt Epright

"Third time's a charm" may not apply for some Marines in the 1st Force Service Support Group, who have been a part of all three of the Corps' most recent combat deployments.

More than two-thirds of the I Marine Expeditionary Force - currently in Iraq conducting stability and security operations - took part in liberating the country in 2003. A select few are punching their ticket for a third time, as they were also deployed to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom from 2001 to 2002.

The experience these Marines bring to their jobs is a valuable asset for unit leaders.

"If we have to do something similar to this ... those are the type of people we like to have," said 1st Force Service Support Group's commanding general, Brig. Gen. Richard S. Kramlich.

However, such a high tempo of operations means little time with friends and family back home.

Sgt. Jason N. Gravem, a force protection noncommissioned officer with 1st FSSG headquarters, served in Enduring Freedom as a machine gunner with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based in Camp Lejeune, N.C. He returned to the states afterward and transferred to Camp Pendleton. As soon as he had packed his bags, he found himself packing them again.

"Within four months of being at Pendleton, I found myself in Kuwait for (Exercise) Internal Look, which later turned into Operation Iraqi Freedom," 26-year-old Gravem said.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, Gravem provided security for the 1st FSSG's headquarters element before heading back to Camp Pendleton in June 2003. Again, his stay was cut short.

"When I got back home, I would have just enough time to get settled in before I would find myself being deployed again," Gravem said.

Gravem, still single, admitted that the heavy deployment cycle has impacted his personal life, and he said three times was enough for him. His closest friends are all Marines that he has been deployed with at one time or another. Though he greatly values those friendships, he said he is ready for a change of surroundings.

Such rapid back-to-back deployments, with more time overseas than at home, are causing some Marines to choose paths away from the Corps, causing concern among Marine leaders.

"I think anytime you have people with that type of experience, we certainly are concerned about them leaving the Marine Corps. If it's some of the career people who are getting out -- NCOs that are perhaps on their second enlistment -- then I think we need to take a hard look at it," Kramlich said.

"I enjoy being a Marine and I enjoy being deployed, but after three combat tours, I'm not going to try my luck on a fourth. I've done my time and I'm ready to move on," said Gravem, who wants to attend school to obtain his private pilot's license.

Gunnery Sgt. John M. Thibodeau, a 37-year-old from Newport, R.I., served as a military policeman in all three conflicts, most recently with the 1st FSSG.

"The last two years, I haven't been able to settle down because I'm always prepared to go someplace else. Every time I come home there is that transition, where I have to 'turn off' being in a forward area," Thibodeau said.

That transition period was somewhat longer after OIF, so it was a bit of a surprise for Thibodeau when he found out that he was going back to Iraq.

"Between the first two (deployments) it was about a month, this last time it was about seven. I was just getting back into the normal routine of life when they told us we were coming back over here," Thibodeau said.

Examples such as his are initiating discussions at the highest levels of Marine Corps leadership.

"I think it's a concern of the commandant. 'What is the impact of the op tempo going to be?' I think he's concerned about that. And he's asked his commanders and general officers to certainly have that in mind," Kramlich said.

One thing leaders have done to try to lessen the strain on Marines is to split the Corps' current 14-month obligation in Iraq into two seven-month shifts.

Thibodeau, who has a girlfriend back home, said his family and friends worry about him while he is gone.

"My dad retired from the military, so he understands my job, but he thinks differently now that he is no longer in uniform and his son is. They understand that I have a job to do and they're supportive, but they are concerned about me," said Thibodeau, who is debating retirement to pursue a job with federal law enforcement.

Sgt. Geoffrey A. Newson, 25, and Sgt. Clifton R. Coffey, 27, have served side-by-side in all three operations. Newson, from Portland, Ore., served as a military policeman and Houston-native Coffey as an infantryman assigned to Military Police Company, 1st FSSG.

Both were back from Afghanistan for a month before shipping out for Iraq and back home again for five months before returning for a second tour in Iraq. Newson was not originally slated to deploy for the current operation.

After lifting restrictions preventing Marines from getting out at the end of their contracts during OIF, Newson's company was heavily depleted of experienced combat vets, and he and Coffey found themselves in high demand.

"We came back and half of our company got out of the Marine Corps. We were hurting for people who knew what was going on," Newson said.

So, even though it will probably delay his own plans for exiting the Corps, Newson returned to Iraq.

"I would rather be home with my wife, but I know that I'm doing this for her and doing it for my country," Newson said.

"I would not be surprised if career-oriented Marines are giving it a hard thought, if they had been in Afghanistan, been to OIF and now are here," Kramlich said.

Newson and his wife met shortly before he shipped out for Afghanistan, and they were just married a few months ago.

"Of the three years we've been together, I've been gone for about two-and-a-half. I'm not going to say it gets any easier," said Newson, who said he will seek a job in law enforcement after this deployment.

"That's a lot to ask, not only of the individual Marines. It's a lot to ask if they've got families," Kramlich said.

In addition to worrying about their families at home, Marines feel obligated to their brothers in arms.

Coffey volunteered to go along with Newson on this deployment because he feels it is vital for veterans to watch out for the younger Marines.

"We've got all the experience," said Coffey. "These kids don't."

The Corps is working hard to find ways to keep such valuable, seasoned Marines from packing it up for good. Ultimately though, leaders must rely on high recruiting standards to get good people in to replace those who leave the ranks, said Kramlich.

"There's only so much you're going to be able to do. The tough jobs that the president wants handled, the Marine Corps is getting those tough jobs," Kramlich said.
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