NEW ORLEANS – Marines fight battles, and they fight to win. It’s in the names they call each other – warfighter, motivator, devil dog. What many people may not realize is that Marines are engaged in battles in their communities, for their communities, through the simple act of volunteering.
“Marines are known to fight and win battles; a lot of these people's battles are simply finding food to eat that day or a place to sleep that night,” said Cpl. Estephania de León, an administrative specialist with Marine Corps Individual Reserve Support Activity at Marine Forces Reserve. “In a way, we are helping them fight and win those battles of starvation, homelessness, whatever they may be facing.”
In a recent news article by the American Forces Press Service, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Pentagon officials announced that despite the recently-ended government shutdown and sequestration reducing government spending, community and public outreach operations within the individual military services will be able to continue.
“Community outreach brings Americans together in communities across the nation and helps inspire some to serve, builds support at home for those deployed in harm's way, and helps to ensure education, employment and wellness initiatives evolve to serve veterans,” Hagel said in the internal memo to U.S. military service chiefs directing these changes.
Even during hard times, more grassroots-type efforts of community interaction have continued unabated through Marines volunteering at local missions, shelters, hospitals and community events. The Marines at MARFORRES have recognized the battles that need to be fought in the New Orleans area and are bringing the fight to communities where the people are in need of reinforcements.
“In New Orleans, there’s a really big need for volunteers,” said Capt. Samuel Baumer, volunteer coordinator for the 4th Marine Logistics Group at MARFORRES. “There’s a need for people to get out of their comfort zone, to go out and just help other people.”
According to Master Sgt. Rebecca Zahrndt, the MARFORRES volunteer coordinator, volunteer events are usually organized within the community and attended by Marines during their off-time, after spending their workday in uniform.
“If we can give them any form of hope … then let’s do it,” Master Sgt. Rebecca Zahrndt, MARFORRES volunteer coordinator said.
Marines have been taking part in volunteer events across the city – from cleaning up wooded areas and walking dogs at the local Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to building homes with Habitat for Humanity, feeding the city’s homeless and visiting patients at the local children’s hospital.
“There are so many organizations asking for a lending hand,” said de León. “I often feel upset when I have to choose one over the other because there are so many.”
One such place is the New Orleans Mission. It is a privately-owned, non-profit organization located next to the Pontchartrain Expressway, where many of the city’s homeless camp in downtown New Orleans.
NOM volunteer coordinator Louis Barron said the mission’s around-the-clock efforts are made possible not just from donations, but from dedicated community and service members that take time out of their schedules to help staff the mission.
From serving breakfast in the morning to sheltering guests at night in houses owned by the mission, all of these ventures are staffed primarily by volunteers.
“We rely on our volunteers more than 100 percent,” Barron said. “I love to have the Marines come out here, so they get to see what we do here and what we are about. We want people to come out, we want people to volunteer. Our volunteers are what make the mission.”
Volunteering and community involvement is not something Marines do simply for professional advancement or to fill a hypothetical “check in the box.” Engagement with local communities is encouraged by commanders across the Corps as a morale booster for their Marines as well as a way to show American citizens that the Marine Corps has not forgotten about the America they have sworn to protect.
Lt. Gen. Richard P. Mills, commander of MARFORRES, says that it is a part of the Corps’ mission for Marines to engage with and become a part of the communities they live in, no matter where they may be stationed.
“Marines are carrying with them a responsibility to represent the Marine Corps to local communities, to hold that banner high. And, remember, the reputations of thousands and thousands of Marines before them and after them rest on their shoulders,” said Mills. “We want to be part of the city, not just ‘the Marines who live over there on that base.’ We want to be part of the great life of this city, part of the great experience and great community of this city.”
For de León, she not only takes the commander’s words seriously, but personally. She credits her extensive volunteer experiences in Iwakuni, Japan, and New Orleans for helping her to grow as a person and as a Marine.
“Having a close relationship with the community will give you a sense of belonging,” said de León. “I think we can make a huge impact. Knowing that you were participant in building someone’s happiness and security will not only affect the community by letting them know they can count on you, but it will also affect you by giving you a different perspective on life.”
De León and Marines across the world are answering the call to fight for their country, both in-theater and in their respective communities.
They are letting it shape them into better service members and better citizens, while impacting lives one day at a time. They volunteer to fight overseas and to serve at home because it’s their creed as well as their legacy as United States Marines.