Marines and family members pay their respects at a Camp Pendleton ceremony… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Camp Pendleton — Six-year-old Keegan Ramirez knows that his father, Marine Sgt. Rafael Ramirez, is in Afghanistan.
But there is nothing unusual about that. The Ramirez family lives in base housing, where nearly all the fathers and some of the mothers leave home regularly for seven to 12 months at a stretch.
Sgt. Ramirez, 27, is with an artillery battalion in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province. He has made three other deployments to Iraq to the insurgent-battleground of Anbar province.
Recently, Keegan has come to understand an inescapable fact about his father's chosen profession: Not everyone comes home alive or uninjured.
"We hadn't heard from his father in a couple of days," said Keegan's mother, Emma Ramirez, "and Keegan came to me one night and asked, 'Did daddy die?' It broke my heart."
Children have had to grow up quickly in the last decade at Camp Pendleton.
On Friday, it will be exactly 10 years since the Marines from Camp Pendleton landed in the Afghanistan desert one starry night, the first conventional U.S. troops into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Nearly every facet of the base has changed over the decade as Marines deployed to Afghanistan in 2001, then to Iraq in 2003 and back to Afghanistan in 2008. There's a new Wounded Warriors Barracks, and a five-story, $450-million hospital is under construction.
"We've never really stopped," said Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who led troops in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "There was never a lull."
But possibly the most profound change in the last decade has involved the relationship between the Marine Corps and its families, the spouses and children who stay behind.
As part of that change, the five elementary schools on base have scrambled to use counseling and special lesson plans to help students like Keegan Ramirez cope with the fear and stress of having a parent in a war zone.
Some 345 Marines from Camp Pendleton were killed in Iraq and more than 50 have been killed in Afghanistan. More than 3,000 have been wounded.
"My children haven't known a time when their father was not gone," said Lelia Brady, 34, who has an 8-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. "To them, their dad is always at war. He leaves soon for his seventh deployment."
Tears and joy
The tears of departure and the joy of homecoming are constant features at Camp Pendleton, the region's largest employer and home to more than 42,000 active-duty troops.
Along the fences at the base's entry points are homemade signs greeting Marines and sailors returning from deployment: "Welcome home Daddy! Can I have a puppy?" "Robert Charles You Make Your Mother Proud" "Marry Me, Cpl. Garcia."
Monuments to the fallen, formal and informal, also dot the 195-square-mile base.
It is not uncommon to see Marines and sailors with tattoos listing the names of buddies killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some cars and trucks have decals in the back window spelling out a name, the appropriate dates and the epitaph KIA, killed in action.
Death, injury, anxiety and prolonged separations have become a way of life at Camp Pendleton.
"It's become our new normal," said Meghan Jones, 33, whose husband is a gunnery sergeant. "For most of us, it's all we've known."
The Marine Corps has hired 141 full-time family readiness officers for the 55,000 Marines at Camp Pendleton and other bases in Southern California and Yuma, Ariz. A survey early in the Iraq war showed many families felt overwhelmed and isolated when a loved one deployed.
The longterm effects on military families of repeated deployments are being studied, and early results have noted increased stress. The Marine Corps recently launched an anti-alcoholism program.
But one sign that the family readiness approach is working is that fewer spouses are packing up and moving back to their families during deployments, preferring to remain on base, where support programs are in place.
"In 2003, it was a ghost-town in family housing," said Brady, a family readiness officer for an aviation squadron.
Family readiness officers try, among other duties, to minimize disruptions for families, making sure that parties and sports events and outings for the children go as planned regardless of the news from the deployed troops.
"You do whatever you can for the families," said Kip Hughes, 36, who is married to a gunnery sergeant and works as a family readiness officer for a unit that recently had two Marine snipers killed. "I think we're best in a crisis."
The needs of spouses run from the mundane — broken appliances, overdrawn bank accounts — to the more serious — in-law problems, loneliness, substance abuse — to the life-threatening, as when a Marine's wife went into labor at 26 weeks.