BASE, SWEET BASE

Big in­stal­la­tions like Camp Pendle­ton of­fer troops’ fam­i­lies the com­forts of civil­ian life, with­out civil­ians

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Tony Perry re­port­ing from camp pendle­ton

The days when “If the Marine Corps wanted you to have a fam­ily, it would have is­sued you one” are clearly over.

The 43,300 mil­i­tary per­son­nel and fam­ily mem­bers who live on the Marines’ ma­jor West Coast base en­joy the ameni­ties of a pros­per­ous mid­sized town — five schools, nine health clin­ics, a golf course, swim­ming pools and dozens of child-care fa­cil­i­ties.

There are a new hos­pi­tal, a movie theater, two florists, four dry clean­ers, three “big box” stores, 20 fast-food restau­rants, and, be­cause it’s a mil­i­tary base, 13 bar­ber shops and a com­mis­sary sell­ing gro­ceries for up to 30% less than at civil­ian su­per­mar­kets.

Tree-shaded neigh­bor­hoods like Wire Moun­tain and Stu­art Mesa fea­ture at­trac­tive twos­tory houses f lanked by green lawns. En­lis­tees live in col­lege-like dorms, not wooden bar­racks. The web­site for hous­ing on the base, with its 17 miles of Pa­cific coast­line, touts sea­side living and a “recre­ational par­adise.”

“We build com­mu­ni­ties, just like the hous­ing out­side the fence,” said Robert Mar­shall, direc­tor of fam­ily hous­ing. “Just be­cause the Marines

are on the march, it doesn’t mean the spouses and kids have to be on the same march.”

That benev­o­lent ap­proach ref lects a grow­ing trend in the all-vol­un­teer mil­i­tary — pro­vide for the fam­i­lies as well as the war­riors.

The ques­tion is whether the shel­tered, sub­si­dized life­style on this heav­ily guarded mega-base, and oth­ers like it, has re­in­forced the sep­a­ra­tion of the all-vol­un­teer mil­i­tary from the na­tion it serves.

The Pen­tagon closed more than 350 do­mes­tic bases and other in­stal­la­tions be­tween the end of the Cold War and 2010 to save money and en­hance ef­fi­ciency. Many of their func­tions and per­son­nel were con­sol­i­dated into fewer, mostly larger bases that tend to be more iso­lated than the ear­lier con­stel­la­tion.

Com­mu­ni­ties that clus­ter around the largest bases — Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, Ft. Camp­bell in Ken­tucky, Ft. Hood in Texas, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Wash­ing­ton state and Ft. Ben­ning in Ge­or­gia — are dom­i­nated by mil­i­tary per­son­nel, re­servists and re­tirees, many of them from multi-gen­er­a­tional mil­i­tary fam­i­lies.

The De­fense Depart­ment is the big­gest em­ployer in San Diego County, for ex­am­ple, pro­vid­ing 133,000 jobs. An ad­di­tional 245,000 mil­i­tary vet­er­ans live in the county, many close to the base. One re­sult: The Pen­tagon pumped more than $25 bil­lion into the lo­cal econ­omy last year, ac­cord­ing to the civil­ian-run San Diego Mil­i­tary Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil.

At the same time, some ex­perts worry that the grow­ing self-suf­fi­ciency of the mega-bases adds to the sense of a di­vided so­ci­ety.

Ron Bee, a lec­turer in po­lit­i­cal science and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at San Diego State, is con­cerned that so few Amer­i­cans serve in uni­form or share the sac­ri­fice of those who do. The public has “men­tally out- sourced” is­sues of war and peace to the mil­i­tary, he says, and “some­how, some way, be­comes sur­prised when world events in­ter­rupt our day.”

“At uni­ver­si­ties and in the public dis­course, we tend to sep­a­rate out our mil­i­tary com­pa­tri­ots, with oc­ca­sional nods of grat­i­tude,” like salutes to vet­er­ans at sports events, he added.

Steve Erie, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at UC San Diego, says Amer­i­cans re­vere the mil­i­tary — even if they don’t join them­selves. “From the civil­ian stand­point, the all-vol­un­teer force ap­pears to be work­ing fine,” he said.

Here at the home of the 1st Marine Di­vi­sion, many ar­gue that the up­graded living con­di­tions helped the Marines and their fam­i­lies en­dure the un­re­lent­ing strain of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars: the back-to-back de­ploy­ments, the geopo­lit­i­cal un­cer­tain­ties, the ca­su­al­ties.

“It’s more of a fam­ily than living out­side,” said Jes­sica Kon­czal, 33, whose hus­band is Sgt. Matthew Kon­czal. “If you’ve had a hard day, you’ll prob­a­bly meet some­one at the com­mis­sary who un­der­stands be­cause they’re go­ing through the same thing.”

It re­mains an iron­clad be­lief among mil­i­tary fam­i­lies that civil­ians do not com­pre­hend their lives: the con­stant mov­ing, the long sep­a­ra­tions, rais­ing chil­dren with a par­ent far away, the post-com­bat men­tal dis­or­ders, and dur­ing the dark­est days of war, the fear of find­ing an of­fi­cer and chap­lain wait­ing out­side to say a loved one has died.

“Civil­ians, even when they try, just can’t un­der­stand the emo­tions that we go through,” said Sharon Garcia, 22, as she waited for her hus­band, Sgt. Robert Garcia, to re­turn from his third war-zone de­ploy­ment.

Some 346 Marines from here were killed in Iraq, mak­ing the base’s losses sec­ond only to those of the Army’s Ft. Hood, which had 509 troops killed.

“We’ve lost a few friends,” said Jo­lene Bopp, 25, whose hus­band is Sgt. Justin Bopp. “We’ve lost some to sui­cide too. You pretty much learn to live with it.”

Like many spouses, Bopp ap­pre­ci­ates the shop­ping and the sense of safety for the chil­dren. But she says there are times “when you just need to get away.”

An off-base restau­rant is prefer­able for a girls’ night out. “On base, ev­ery­thing you do re­flects on your hus­band,” she said.

Still, the eco­nomic spillover on nearby Ocean­side has changed in re­cent years.

The de­ploy­ment of Marines to the first Gulf War in 1991 caused a sharp down­turn in Ocean­side and other nearby towns. A decade or so later, when Marines de­ployed to Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, the im­pact was barely no­tice­able. Their fam­i­lies had al­ready been do­ing most of their shop­ping on base.

Of­fi­cials here say that life in­side the heav­ily guarded base isn’t as sep­a­rate as it ap­pears.

All un­mar­ried Marines un­der the rank of sergeant live on base, but only a third of mar­ried Marines do. The rest live out­side the gate even if they shop on base. More­over, the av­er­age Marine re­turns to civil­ian life af- ter four years of ac­tive duty, although that tour may shape his or her at­ti­tudes for life.

Civil­ians on bi­cy­cles are al­lowed to pedal through the base. Thou­sands of week­end ath­letes flock to the base for the an­nual “mud run.” Oth­ers come to play paint­ball, bowl at Leath­er­neck Lanes or ride horses.

Lo­cal me­dia cover the base and the Marines closely, send­ing re­porters to Afghanistan long af­ter other news or­ga­ni­za­tions stopped.

Last year, a two-story fa­cil­ity was opened at Del Mar Beach — not the city of Del Mar but a wide and well­tended beach at Camp Pendle­ton. With a view of the ocean, the fa­cil­ity is open to civil­ians for cor­po­rate meet­ings and wed­dings. Cater­ing can be ar­ranged.

All that is wel­come to Chelsey Kurtz, who grew up here in the 1990s when her fa­ther was in the Navy and living con­di­tions were far more aus­tere. Now 30, she lives on base again with her hus­band, Sgt. Ryan Kurtz, and their two chil­dren.

“When my fa­ther was here, it was just a work­place,” said Kurtz. “Now it’s a fam­ily place.”

Pho­tog raphs by Katie Falken­berg Los An­ge­les Times

MAS­TER SGT. RICK DU­RAN, left, plays horse­shoes with nephew Manny Higuera on the beach at Camp Pendle­ton. The web­site for hous­ing on the base touts it as a “recre­ational par­adise.” In ad­di­tion to 17 miles of coast­line, Pendle­ton has a golf course and movie theater.

CPL. JOR­DAN ZIEGLER shops on base with daugh­ters Delilah, left, and Ade­laide. Gro­ceries at the com­mis­sary are up to 30% less than off base.

Pho­tog raphs by Katie Falken­berg Los An­ge­les Times

MAKAYLA BALDERAS ad­mires the uni­forms for sale as she shops on base with her fam­ily. “We build com­mu­ni­ties,” says fam­ily hous­ing direc­tor Robert Mar­shall, “just like the hous­ing out­side the fence.” That in­cludes three “big box” stores and 20 fast-food restau­rants.

CPL. JUSTIN MACRAE works out on the base — which is so self-suf­fi­cient that it can in­ad­ver­tently en­cour­age mil­i­tary fam­i­lies’ sep­a­ra­tion from civil­ian so­ci­ety.

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