CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- Nearly two hundred family members of deployed Marines and sailors packed Camp Lejeune's Ball Center for a town hall style meeting with Lt. Gen. Dennis J. Hejlik, the commanding general of II Marine Expeditionary Force, Jan. 21.
For the second time in as many days, Hejlik met with the spouses of 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit Marines and sailors currently deployed to Haiti where they are assisting in relief efforts in the wake of an earthquake that devastated the Caribbean country, Jan. 12.
"They don't have shelter, they don't have food, they don't have water," said Hejlik, illustrating the bleak conditions facing the Haitian people. "There's no government and there's no police."
"Without the U.S. military, USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development], and the other nations providing support, the Haitians would not stand a chance."
At the heart of the discussion was the rationale behind sending the 22nd MEU to Haiti less than six weeks after it returned from a seven month deployment to the European and Central Command theaters.
Hejlik reminded the assembled spouses that the decision to redeploy the recently returned MEU was his and that it was not a decision taken lightly.
"I understand it is hard on all of you," Hejlik explained. "We looked at the forces available ... and the 22nd MEU was the right choice. I know we made the right decision."
Less than 24 hours after the earthquake hit Haiti, the 22nd MEU finalizing its plans to reembark aboard amphibious shipping and sail to the Caribbean. The 1,700 Marines and sailors of the slightly scaled back MEU departed the United States the evening of Jan. 16, steamed straight to Haitian waters and was in position to begin contributing to relief efforts on the 19th.
After giving the family members a quick rundown on the MEU's ongoing operations, Hejlik opened the floor to questions.
The questions ran the gamut from the expected length of the deployment to the impact the unexpected mission would have on pay, transfers, connectivity via phone and e-mail, legal matters and post deployment health care.
Hejlik relied on assembled members of his staff such as the staff judge advocate, personnel officer, surgeon and chaplain to provide detailed responses to these queries.
When one of the spouses questioned the living conditions of the Marines, Sgt. Maj. Carl Green, II MEF's senior enlisted Marine, stepped forward to relate a message he had recently received from Sgt. Maj. Carl Chapman, the 22nd MEU sergeant major.
"Their attitude is very positive," said Green. "The Marines down there clearly understand why they are there."
After the town hall, Hejlik and his staff mingled with the spouses fielding questions.
"I told the general I really appreciated him coming down to talk to us," said Barbi Suggs, whose husband is with the MEU's ground combat element, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment. "It is important for us to see General Hejlik. He was open and honest, and that did a lot to reassure the ladies."
The uncertainty of military operations meant that Hejlik could not answer the most pressing question – when the MEU would return home – but Suggs took this lack of definitive news in stride.
"Even though there was no real answer, we know we'll eventually find out."
Suggs' husband of nine years is on his fourth deployment and attributes the length of her marriage and experiences thus far with helping her cope with the unexpected redeployment.
"It's harder on the younger wives," Suggs said, "but we all have to be patient because it's the Marine Corps life."
Frank Smith is the 22nd MEU Family Readiness Officer.
"For most of the families, it [the Haitian deployment] is hard because the unit had only been back for 45 days or so."
As for Hejlik's decision to meet with the families, Smith added, "The spouses like hearing from the higher ups confirming the word they've been told or dealing with rumors they've heard. I think they appreciated the fact that General Hejlik dealt with them as a human being ... not just as a general ... and he's here offering his support."
Emily Garofalo, another 22nd MEU spouse, gave her advice on the best way for the families left behind to deal with their loved ones' deployment.
"Just learn to be patient and be proud of your husbands and what they're doing."