Nation & World

Obama will tell Marines their new roles

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, then-President George W. Bush told Marines at Camp Lejeune, "What we have begun, we will finish."

Many rounds of combat deployments later, Marines will gather at the base today to hear how his successor plans to fulfill that promise.

In a midday speech, President Barack Obama is expected to describe a plan to withdraw combat troops from Iraq within 18 months. That would be welcome news in Jacksonville, where some spouses have watched their warriors leave for as many as five tours in Iraq.

"It'd be nice to see our people come back," said Thomas Connell of Jacksonville, who works for a support-services contractor at Camp Lejeune. Connell said the frequent deployments wear on people; he sees it in the faces of his Marine neighbors and their families.

"You see them come and go all the time," he said.

About 18,000 Lejeune Marines are now serving in Iraq, along with 3,000 or so from nearby Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

Reducing the number of Marines needed in Iraq would allow for more time between deployments, so Marines could get reacquainted with their families and get fresh training and equipment.

But as the president was considering withdrawal from Iraq, he recently announced plans to deploy an additional 8,000 Lejeune Marines to Afghanistan, part of a buildup designed to reduce violence and stabilize the government of that country.

"What's it mean for the Marines? Nothing, really," said Sgt. Steve Whiteman, who was attending a luncheon at the USO in downtown Jacksonville on Thursday. The luncheon was for a class of noncommissioned officers who had completed a three-week leadership training course. Whiteman, 30, was one of the instructors.

"Lejeune is a busy place," said Whiteman, who has served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. "If we come out of Iraq, we just keep rolling and rolling, to the next place and the next place and the next place. There's always somewhere else we need to go."

Whiteman was not among the 2,000 or so Marines given tickets to hear the president during what's expected to be about a two-hour visit.

A base spokesman said there would be little fanfare for the event. A single American flag has been draped in the field house where Obama will speak. After an invocation and a solo performance of the national anthem, Obama will give his speech and then visit wounded Marines at the base.

Marines' toll in N.C.

At least 24 Marines from North Carolina have been killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and more than 200 have been wounded.

Pfc. Matthew Gilpin said he was interested to hear Obama's plans for Iraq and Afghanistan; he's been told he will likely be sent to Afghanistan by the end of the year. It would be his first combat tour since joining the Marines two years ago.

Gilpin, a Democrat, said he's been satisfied with the president's efforts to this point.

"So far, so good," he said. "But I back up my leaders 100 percent."

Just as the fighting in the war on terror is far removed from the lives of most Americans, Obama's visit to Lejeune seemed remote from daily life for most of Jacksonville on Thursday. Because the public was not invited, many in town didn't even know he was coming.

Ron Johnson, who runs Yesterday's Thrift Store near the main entrance to the base, said a visit by the president would give a boost to service members and their families.

"I think it's a good idea he's coming if he don't stay five minutes," Johnson said. "It's going to build morale up, him not being in office very long and coming to Lejeune. It shows the Marine Corps he cares about them."