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Knoxville News Sentinel May 16, 2005

Unexpected tour grows on Marines

Engineering battalion learning to appreciate time, culture on mission to Horn of Africa

By Bryan Mitchell

At first, the news hit the Knoxville Marines hard.

The members of 2nd Platoon, Delta Company, 4th Combat Engineer Battalion got a mission, but not the one they expected.

While their East Tennessee comrades deployed to Iraq to join one of the largest contingents of Marines anywhere in the world in the Al-Anbar province, the 35 Marines of 2nd Platoon were shipped off to the Horn of Africa.

They were tasked with securing a joint military installation on the tiny nation of Djibouti as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. The country is rarely in the news, and the chances of discovering a wanted terrorist or facing combat are slim.

But four months into a scheduled 7-month tour, the Marines have learned to relish their time in Djiouti.

Gunnery Sgt. Tim Burke, a West Knox County father of four, is the senior noncommissioned officer among the Marines of 2nd Platoon.

He describes a mission that is a mix of security maneuvers, intense training and humanitarian missions.

"Our mission is to provide security of the base (Camp Lemonier) and, through aggressive patrolling in our area of operation, enhance our security," Burke wrote in an e-mail to the News Sentinel.

Camp Lemonier is a former French military installation the United States has been using since mid-2001, according to Globalsecurity.org, a Virginia-based military information clearinghouse.

Burke also describes better-than-expected food and a predictable climate.

"The living conditions here are more than a Marine could ask for. (W)e get three hot meals a day and a tent to sleep in," Burke wrote. "The temperature ranges from the 80s to well over 100 degrees, and we have not hit the summer weather yet."

But the most satisfying aspect of the tour has been the Marines' interaction with the indigenous population.

East Tennessee families have shipped boxes of goods to the Marines, who in turn distribute the packages to the native Djiboutians. A favorite pastime for many of the Knoxville-area Marines is to volunteer at one of the several area orphanages.

"It's amazing to watch a Marine who was just behind a 240G (machine gun) race to catch a ride to help these children," Burke wrote in an e-mail to the News Sentinel. "The time and effort of such Marines is inspiring to see."

Back in East Tennessee, Burke's family has been motivated by his service. Dena Burke said the family has charity frenzy.

She is organizing an effort to ship soccer balls, cleats and even flip-flops for the Djiboutian children.

Her 10-year-old daughter, Stephanie, got in the act, too.

"She went through her closet the other day and wanted to give everything away," Dena Burke said.

Modern communications allow Burke and the rest of the Knoxville Marines to keep in regular contact with their families back in East Tennessee. The Marines can e-mail regularly and place the occasional phone call.

Dena Burke can't decide whom the tour is tougher on: a Marine with 35 troops under him or a mother with four children younger than 10 to corral.

"The hard part is on him," she said. "Then again, he can go the bed and not get woken up by anybody."

Copyright 2005, Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.