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The few, the proud, the alone

Marine reservists often feel out of place back home. A new Corps video tackles their issues frankly.

October 15, 2009|Tony Perry

SAN DIEGO — In an unusually direct way, the Marine Corps is warning reservists and their families about the alienation and psychological pain that Marines can feel when returning to civilian life after duty in a war zone.

A video titled "Worlds Apart" made by a San Diego production company warns that even well-meaning civilians cannot be expected to understand what it is like to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The story has actors portraying a returning enlisted Marine named Jeff; his wife, Eileen; and their friends and family members. At first, Jeff's return is joyous, but he soon becomes sullen and angry and begins drinking heavily and withdrawing emotionally from Eileen and their young son. Their marriage deteriorates.

Jeff tries college but thinks of quitting. He is particularly annoyed at comments by civilians who know about Iraq only from "reading blogs or watching freaking CNN."

The second half of the video has actual Marines and family members talking about their readjustment problems. After a short statement from a colonel, the screen shows several dozen Web addresses of military and civilian agencies offering mental health and other assistance.

"I thought it was pretty amazing that the Marine Corps was willing to take some risks with this project," said Brent Altomare, owner of the production company Groovy Like a Movie, whose other clients include San Diego's annual gay pride parade.

The 33-minute video was made under a $120,000 contract between Altomare's company and the Marine Corps Mobilization Command.

Based in Kansas City, Mo., the Mobilization Command is the "parent command" for what are called individual augmentees: Marines who were close to finishing their reserve obligation and were not part of a battalion or unit but were called to active duty to fill vacancies.

With manpower stretched by two wars, all the services are relying heavily on reservists. The Pentagon on Wednesday reported that 8,275 Marine reservists are on active duty.

Many do not live near Camp Pendleton, Twentynine Palms or another Marine base, so their families do not have easy access to the support systems that the Marine Corps has cobbled together to help stay- behind spouses during a deployment and then assist couples when the deployment is complete.

The video is part of a push by the Mobilization Command to fill that void.

When Jenn Bommarito's husband, Sgt. Michael Bommarito, 33, was on active duty and deployed to Afghanistan in 2005, the separation was difficult but made manageable by the support of other spouses in his battalion.

But when he was ordered to report as an individual augmentee and return to Afghanistan, things were different. The couple were living in Simi Valley, and Michael Bommarito was about to attend truck-driving school.

"The last time I felt a part of it," Jenn Bommarito, 28, said in an interview. "But this time, we don't know anybody around here who has deployed. When he left, I was very angry."

Kenzie Williams, 23, knows the feeling.

She and her husband, Sgt. Derrick Williams, 25, were living in Pauls Valley, Okla., when he was called to active duty. When they married, he had only a few months left on his reserve obligation; now he's in Afghanistan.

"It felt like a bad dream," she said. "I panicked. . . . I felt very angry that the Marines interrupted our life and took him away. I never thought I'd be going through a deployment."

Bommarito and Williams credit the Mobilization Command's family readiness officer, Shanon Glezen, with helping them work through their anger and deal with problems such as the complexities of the health insurance plan for family members.

Glezen's job is to create a virtual community via the Internet for spouses of individual augmentees. Online "webinars" are being held, chaplains have been mobilized and "Returning Warrior Weekends" planned for married couples.

In the video, Jeff is driven to distraction by civilians' constant questions about the hot weather in Iraq. At college, he feels alienated around students who know little, and care less, about the war.

"They can feel like visitors in their own hometown because they're around people who just don't get what their issues are," Glezen said. "We're trying to change that."

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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