- The Washington Times - Monday, December 24, 2001

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. At 19, she is not long past visits from Santa.
But this Christmas, Whitney Nash is a pregnant Marine wife with a stocking hung for a husband deployed as an infantryman in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. She shrugged about the artificial tree in their tiny apartment that was assembled and decorated by some of his buddies from nearby Camp Lejeune, N.C.
"I'm not really happy about Christmas," she said. "I wanted to go home, but I didn't have gas money."
"Home" is La Belle, a small South Florida town near the Everglades. There she was a high school cheerleader and a runner-up in the Miss Swamp Cabbage beauty contest. Here she is lonely and worried and watching her belly expand so fast that she has had to remove the gold rings from her pierced navel.
They had been married for 20 days when Lance Cpl. Nicholas Nash barely 20 himself became one of the 2,200 members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit dispatched to the Arabian Sea.
That was shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Every day for three months, she drove to the United Service Organizations and e-mailed him on his ship. But then he wrote that he wouldn't be e-mailing back for a while.
"I don't know where he is now," she said. "He might be on the land."
In a military town that is both tough and tender, uncertainty is omnipresent this holiday season as the strains of Elvis singing "I'll Be Home for Christmas" are heard on the local oldies radio station. But the stoic, can-do attitude of the Corps has been adopted by the families of the absent Marines.
"We don't sit around dwelling on the fact that they're there and they may be in danger," said Jeanette Frick, wife of Col. Andrew Frick, the Marine expeditionary unit's commander.
"It's always in the back of your mind," she told the Jacksonville Daily News, the local paper. But "this is their job. They train for it. They want to be there. They need to know we're dealing with it."
This is a better place than most to deal with it, said Michele Van Horn, the wife of a gunnery sergeant and an administrator at the USO.
"Friends who are not military have no clue," she said. But mutual support is as much a part of this extended Marine community as are crisp salutes and pawn shops.
Camp Lejeune and the adjacent Marine Corps Air Station, New River, give Onslow County one of the largest concentrations of Marines and sailors in the world. This military community includes nearly 37,000 active-duty personnel, around 42,000 retirees, about 79,000 family members and 5,000 civilian employees of the bases.
Established in 1941 as the major Marine base on the East Coast, Camp Lejeune pumps about $2.1 billion a year into the regional economy. Townsfolk and Marines historically are intertwined.
"Those are fine people, very patriotic, and they really support the families," said Walt Ford, a retired Marine colonel who is editor of Leatherneck, a magazine about the Corps and its extended community.
He said the Corps is a microcosm of the nation as a whole "Marines are truly representative of America" so Jacksonville has a citizenry drawn from everywhere and is hardly a typical small Southern city. The unifying spirit is military.
Indeed, even neighborhood Christmas decorations are different here. A Marine Corps flag hangs above a manger display in one yard, for instance, and a cut-out Marine in dress blues stands near a cut-out Santa in another.
On the grassy median of Lejeune Boulevard, which leads to the main gate of the base, townsfolk have planted 241 memorial trees one for each Marine who died in the 1983 bombing of a barracks in Beirut. All the victims had been stationed here.
Commerce along the main drag caters to the population of young warriors. The Razor's Edge offers "high and tight" military haircuts for $5. Ronnie's has deals on used cars. Gruntz is a video arcade. A store advertises "three complete rooms of furniture" for $39 a month. The sign at Mighty Joe's says "God Bless America Xmas Special. 10% off tattoos and piercing." A boutique has evening gowns for rent and a pawn shop offers cash for formal uniforms.
Along one road, Marine units have constructed plywood Christmas cards.
Paul Quinn, director of community services at Camp Lejeune, has turned the base roller-skating rink into "a North Carolina version of Rockefeller Square" bedecked for Christmas. "The emphasis is on activities for families of deployed Marines," he said.
On Tuesdays, the Midway Chapel has a Lady's Night Out to provide spiritual help for military wives. The USO has an outreach support group to help wives whose husbands are deployed, said Alicia, whose own husband is a gunnery sergeant and who didn't want her last name published.
"I married a Marine and he brought me here," she said. Now she is among the more experienced wives who help their younger counterparts "learn the ropes" of military separation.
"It's hard not knowing what's going on," said Mrs. Nash. "I've never done this before. I sit around and take care of the house and hang out with Nick's friends."
She is showing a videotape that Lance Cpl. Nash has sent of his life aboard the ship. He conducts a tour and displays pictures of their wedding.
"I can see in his face that he's tired," she said. "But he's his same old goofy self."
Her husband plans on a military career, she said, so she expects that deployments will continue to be part of her lifestyle.
"They know there's risk and danger and that their dads are over there," Mrs. Frick, the commander's wife, told the Jacksonville Daily News. "They're proud, but it's been very difficult."

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