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Camp Pendleton troops deploy to Afghanistan

Several hundred Marines -- some first-timers, others veterans of multiple tours -- are headed for southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, until recently a Taliban stronghold.

March 21, 2010|By Tony Perry
  • Cpl. Kelly Burgess, 20, is shipping out for the first time. Her husband Jon, left, just returned from Afghanistan and will take care of their 6-month-old son, Dominik. "He's just trying to deal with it. He's the one used to deploying," she said.
Cpl. Kelly Burgess, 20, is shipping out for the first time. Her husband Jon,… (Tony Perry / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Camp Pendleton — Jerry Germenis was sitting in his seventh-grade English class in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 11, 2001, when the math teacher -- a normally taciturn sort -- rushed into the room with tears in his eyes.

"Turn on the TV, a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center in New York," he blurted out.

Within weeks, combat Marines from Camp Pendleton became the first conventional U.S. troops sent into Afghanistan, helping to topple the Taliban regime that had sheltered Osama bin Laden and his followers.

Nearly nine years later, Marines from this sprawling northern San Diego County base are again taking a lead role in the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan.

Germenis, 22, a computer specialist and Marine lance corporal, was among several hundred Marines who left Saturday for Camp Leatherneck. The base is located in southern Afghanistan, in the middle of Helmand province, which until recently was a Taliban stronghold.

For the first-timers, memories of 9/11 lingered.

"I remember being shocked and then full of regret that I was too young to enlist," said Germenis, who signed up after two years in college. He'd like to be an officer.

"All the best officers were enlisted first," he said. "Read 'Starship Troopers,' it's in there."

Many of the Marines who left Saturday have made multiple war-zone deployments -- Gunnery Sgt. Jeremy Alexander, 30, is on his sixth, although it's the first since the birth of his son, Chase, a month ago.

Like Germenis, Cpl. Kelly Burgess, 20, is making her first trip to Afghanistan. She was in school in Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., on 9/11. Now she's a supply clerk, leaving her 6-month-old son in the care of her husband, Jon Burgess, 21, who just returned from a deployment to Afghanistan.

"I'm as ready as you can be," said Burgess, sitting beside her husband and gently rocking Dominik in his stroller.

Her husband, she said, is having trouble with the role reversal. "He's just trying to deal with it. He's the one used to deploying."

Cpl. Adam Miller, 20, remembers how he and other students were hustled into the middle-school gym in Mason, Mich., to watch the breaking news of the terrorist attacks on television.

He's a tuba player in the 1st Marine Division Band. In Afghanistan, he'll be a guard, shifting duties from musical to tactical.

"This is my new instrument," said Miller, patting his M-16.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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