Marines get support from the homeland

When she deploys to the violence of Afghanistan, Marine Lance Cpl. Sarah Hogg, 20, of Fort Worth, Texas, will remember a sunny day of food and friendship on the shore of Lake Mission Viejo.

So will hundreds of other Marines from the headquarters battalion of the 1st Marine Division who attended a festive gathering Saturday hosted by a Mission Viejo group that “adopted” the battalion seven years ago.

Although support groups for military units are common near bases throughout the U.S., some of the most active are those in Orange County that sponsor activities for the Marines and sailors of Camp Pendleton.

The Mission Viejo group arranges farewell parties before the troops deploy and welcome-home parties when they return. Volunteers visit Marines at the Wounded Warrior barracks.

They gather furniture for young married couples (93 truckloads at last count). They collect ball gowns for female Marines and the girlfriends and wives of male Marines to wear at the annual Marine Corps birthday bash.

In a few weeks they’ll host a baby shower for several dozen pregnant wives of Marines

At Christmas, they gather toys for Marine children. And when the troops are in Iraq, Afghanistan or other overseas locations, the Mission Viejo group sends them hundreds of boxes of home-baked cookies and other goodies.

“It’s the least we can do for them after all they’ve done for us,” said volunteer Joanne Hiebel, 73.

The effort is nonpolitical. Volunteers may, or may not, support U.S. foreign policy, but they definitely support the troops.

Support groups from Buena Park, Dana Point, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Laguna Hills, San Juan Capistrano and other cities have adopted other battalions and regiments from Camp Pendleton.

At the Lake Mission Viejo party, the food was free and the band lively. Marines, their spouses and their children spread out blankets on the grassy shore; some played sand volleyball.

Hogg enjoyed spending a day away from the base, being casual. “It’s nice not to have to worry about being proper,” she said.

A.J. Summa, 65, a member of VFW Post 6024, remembered when he served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and young sailors would wear wigs and hats when they ventured off base in hopes that civilians would not realize they were in the military.

“This is so much better: This shows these young people that America is proud of them and supports them,” he said.

Most of the Marines will deploy soon to Helmand province in Afghanistan — a former Taliban stronghold where 85 Marines have been killed and 877 wounded in the last 12 months. A few of those at the party had visible injuries from previous tours in Iraq and Afghanistan; some had tattoos with the names of Marines killed in action.

Under a warm Southern California sky, thoughts of the war-zone dangers ahead seemed, at least momentarily, out of mind.

“Today is all about morale and camaraderie,” said Cpl. Shauna Toth, 20, of South Carolina.