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California and the West

These Marines Are Going Back to School

Partnerships: San Diego unit has unique relationship with students at elementary campus.

March 20, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The Marines have landed at Lindbergh-Schweitzer Elementary School in San Diego and are assisting with a classroom production of the African folk tale "The Lion and the Ostrich Chicks."

Elsewhere on campus, Marines are aiding students who are grappling with reading, writing and arithmetic. A Marine and a student are doing a tandem reading of Dr. Seuss' "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street."

And on the playground, the young men in the sharply creased utility uniforms are engaged in contests of tetherball with their charges.

Although the trend for companies and community groups of all stripes to establish "partnerships" with schools is widespread in San Diego and elsewhere, there is something unique about the relationship between Lindbergh-Schweitzer and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

More than most such arrangements, the link between the school and the base is mutually beneficial.

Recruits who have been injured during boot camp serve as tutors and role models for Lindbergh-Schweitzer students, some of whom have severe physical and mental disabilities, many of whom are in need of academic assistance.

"They help us and we help them," said Kena Stokes, 11. "We read to each other."

For the students, the green uniforms and high-and-tight haircuts have a bracing effect. Many of the students come from one-parent homes without a strong male presence.

"Most of the kids really don't know what a Marine recruit is," said third-grade teacher Kimberly Moore. "But they see the uniform and they see GI Joe, a real American hero, who has come to help them."

For the injured recruits, it is a needed morale boost at a time when some are feeling low.

"These kids have obstacles to overcome, just like we do," said recruit Clint Thornton of Oklahoma City. "We motivate each other."

Most of the recruits have suffered leg or foot fractures and have been pulled from boot camp just days or weeks shy of completion and assigned instead to a rehabilitation unit. Depending on how well their bones mend, they may or may not return to boot camp and complete their training.

While they will not admit it, many of the recruits are scared that their dream of becoming a Marine, of following in their father's or older brother's footsteps, or of earning the respect of their peers back home, is slipping away.

Injured Marines go into a medical rehabilitation unit on average for 38 days, which can seem an eternity when you're 19 and worried that your future is in danger of collapsing.

A trip to Lindbergh-Schweitzer is a day away from the base and away from their own problems.

"Seeing the kids reminds me why I want to be a Marine: to help people when they need it most," said recruit Noah Hunsaker, of Cedaridge, Colo. "There is no way this recruit is not going to make it to that parade deck [on graduation day]."

Col. Craig Huddleston, commanding officer for the recruiting training regiment in San Diego, got the idea for the tutoring program from the Royal British Marines who assign their injured recruits to work with local children.

The partnership in San Diego has required some cultural adjustments on both sides.

At the school's Christmas assembly, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was added to the program that focused on the "Nutcracker Suite."

And when Lindbergh-Schweitzer students came to the base for a day of fun and games, they found a Marine-style game: mock grenade tossing, using bean bags.

"It's cool," said Matt Smith, 10. "They've taught us how to say neat things like, 'Yes, sir,' and 'No, sir.' "

Principal Mike Giafaglione said he hopes to expand the partnership to involve additional contact between the recruits and the students.

"The students look up to the recruits, and that helps the recruits feel important," Giafaglione said. "Many of the recruits come here at a time when they're feeling their self-worth challenged."

Lindbergh-Schweitzer, a racially diverse school of 860 students in the blue-collar neighborhood of Clairemont, is not the closest school to the Marine training base. But something about the school made the Marines feel comfortable.

"This place is about energy and doing the right thing," said Lt. Col. Randolph Lenac. "Every one of these people could have been Marines."

The recruits also feel comfortable being away from the sharp eyes and strong vocal cords of their drill instructors. "They get to interact with someone who isn't going to yell at them," Huddleston said.

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