ANCON, Peru -- The realities of life in today's fast-paced Marine Corps often leave deployed Marines feeling cynical or world-weary, with little time or opportunity to enjoy the smaller joys in life, like doing something special for someone else or standing up to make an impact on the younger generation.
But when Marines of Special Purpose Marine Air- Ground Task Force 24 teamed up with Peruvian Marines of Batallon Infanteria de Marina 1 for a community relations project at the Almirante Miguel Grau public school here on the outskirts of Lima, there was all of that and more. The project turned out to be an event unlike any that has taken place throughout Partnership of the Americas 2007, an annual training exercise that aims to enhance regional stability and cooperation among nations of North and South America.
Two dozen Marines of SPMAGTF 24 headed to the school with great anticipation, but little knowledge of what exactly to expect. They knew that they would be painting the school, donating supplies and hopefully spending time with the students. But when they arrived, it became clear that the kids were more excited to see them than the Americans could have possibly imagined, surrounding the desert-patterned uniforms as soon as they could.
"It's always a great feeling to help those who are less fortunate than us, whether it was playing with these kids, painting in the courtyard or just spending time and showing them we care. It made me feel special that all they wanted was to talk to us and get our autograph," said Petty Officer 1st Class Lennox A. Bennett, a hospital corpsman from Detachment 1 of Motor Transport Maintenance Company, Maintenance Battalion, 4th Marine Logistics Group, in Abilene, Texas.
"Interacting with those kids reminded me of my daughter back home because of how playful and energetic they are at that age. It was really a rewarding experience and I just wish we could've done more," added the Spanishtown, Jamaica, native.
There was a strong sense of teamwork and accomplishment among the U.S. and Peruvian Marines, a prevalent theme of the training here since the beginning. Most painted the walls of the school together, while others moved around the schoolyard with flocks of children following close by. Many of the students wanted autographs and would eagerly wait for the Marines to sign their notebooks or slips of paper, while some just wanted to be in the presence of those whom they considered to be very important. Some of the kids spoke English quite well, and conversations were held about everything from hometowns to military life.
"The children were eager to interact with us, and though my Spanish is limited, I found that the language barrier was easily bridged by a smile and kind words,” said Sgt. Ofir Fatal of San Jose, Calif., a motor transport operator with A Company, 4th Landing Support Battalion, 4th Marine Logistics Group. “The time we spent at the school was just as important to us as our training with the Peruvian Marines, and I believe it helped project a positive image of the United States.”
Soccer is the favorite sport among the students, and they were very happy to hear that the Marines would play with them. The game was lighthearted but the competition was tough, and in the end that brought the opposing teams together more than any words ever could. Many of the Marines confessed to feeling just like a kid in the schoolyard again after the game, clearly ecstatic about being a part of the event.
"It was just a great experience, the first opportunity that I had personally to work side by side with the Peruvian Marines. I wish I spoke some Spanish, but it didn't seem to matter. The kids were just really happy that we were there," said Cpl. Ryan K. Francis of Bothell, Wash., a data network specialist from Headquarters Company, 4th Landing Support Battalion in Fort Lewis, Wash.
The children remained well-mannered even after the autograph frenzy began, and clearly had a great deal of respect for the military. Young boys saluted very solemnly, with stern looks on their faces, as Marines passed by. Many of them asked about Iraq and said that the Marines are very brave to go there, while many of the girls said that they wanted to be married to a Marine. All of them brought out big smiles, even among the most stoic Marines.
The visit ended with a short ceremony where school supplies, soccer balls, pallets of drinking water, and paint to finish the school were donated. There was loud applause and shouts of thanks from the kids, most of whom were sad to see that their newfound friends would be leaving soon. Countless photos were taken and even e-mail addresses exchanged, in order to send the photos.
In the words of one student, they will "never forget the day the Marines came to visit" their school.