This is for all the former Marine Corps “grunts” who might have served at Camp Las Pulgas, Camp Pendleton, California, the gruesome high dry desert where we trained for the jungles of Vietnam.
Not the easiest process for getting back on the base. Just show my Purple Heart at the gate and I'm on? No way. There is a procedure on the web that I couldn't quite navigate, so I wrote directly to the base commander with all of my USMC specifics. A couple of weeks later I received an official letter from a full colonel Chief of Staff granting my request to come on board at Las Pulgas between dates in February and March.
Las Pulgas, worn-out and reopened in 1966, unused since World War II, Vietnam heating up, Marines ordered west to ready ourselves for much further west across the Pacific.
Visitors to the base must be accompanied by an active Marine. I guess it's all post-9/11, forever. Personally, I'm looking forward to meeting up with a current Marine to share my past, his present. I hope he comes in a jeep. Semper Fi:
I'm always in Los Angeles for Oscar weekend so since I'll be in the big neighborhood including almost Oceanside and San Diego I've added Pendleton to my itinerary, big deal memories of the grind we all went through, little to no time off base, Las Pulgas more like a post-nuclear blast site then an actual active base. Marines do more with less.
In 1966 I was a Lance Corporal transferred west from Camp Lejeune North Carolina all alone in the Los Angeles bus station. CHP motorcycle types and their high black boots, a topless pizzaria close by — lasting first memories.
Reporting in after a bus trip down, a long way from anything.
You former “grunt” Marines will appreciate the fact that I spoke with a Lieutenant Colonel and a Chief Warrant Officer in arranging my visit. I didn't know whether to salute through the phone or simply enjoy the turn of events. I enjoyed, but still, that saluting business.
I got an email from the Warrant Officer telling me there would be a "solid" NCO at the Las Pulgas gate to meet me from the 11th artillery based at Las Pulgas.
I-5 all the way down from my motel north of Los Angeles. I got my USMC with globe and anchor logo, longsleeved black shirt. "Solid."
First a stop in Laguna Beach — my Marine Corps brother — yes, him too — hung out here when at Pendleton — so I'm at the White House Restaurant & Bar where he hung out for my breakfast stop.
Laguna Beach is what the south of France or the Costa del Sol wish they were.
Okay, main gate Oceanside to check on Las Pulgas gate. Shotguns and 45s, nobody getting by. Okay, back up I-5 and there is Las Pulgas Road — got to be.
Young Marine, of course, at the phone booth entrance gate. Can't decide if I like the camo fatigues look compared to my straight up green.
He's all business, holding my driver’s license after I show him my official entrance letters. He's not impressed, holding my ID until my escort arrives.
And here he is, right on time, young, in his camos, in his own vehicle. Good handshake and in we go, into those now green hills that broke our backs, the whole south state all bright blue sky, crisp cold, snow on the higher hills, crisp cold surf nearby.
The corporal is from New Mexico. Wanted to be a force recon Marine — the baddest dudes that you've never heard of — but he couldn't swim well enough. He’s clerking, supporting; so I'm sort of a South Pacific World War II grunt compared to him.
And here it is, Las Pulgas, "The Fleas" — mission accomplished. And wouldn't you know it, the office the Corporal takes me to is in one of the old barracks where I had collapsed on my bunk, promoted to Corporal for staying the course.
Two senior Marines to greet me, a full gunnery sergeant and a second lieutenant, the gunny totally squared away, Tie, full service ribbons, power sidearm in duty belt. He is going to be my guide — like a bishop showing you a church.
He’s cordial and receptive to my tales, just a short walk past the worn parade ground, artillery reservists getting ready for a training exercise, all trucks and artillery. It all comes back to me as if it has never left.
The gunny’s been to Iraq and Afghanistan, more support than combat, so again, I'm a warrior come among them. Photos of each other and I've got all that I’ve come back for. He will drive me back.
I'm in the hallway waiting for him. He comes out of the worn out office (Marines do more with less) and says, "Sir, for you—" and, he's got a military folded stars and stripes and a formal written citation of welcome and thanks for me. The flag flew over the base just the day before I arrived. For me.
I'm speechless. I am. And I'm from Metro New York so that's hard to do.
Pride doesn't cover it. I'm sure they are proud that I made the effort to get here. And of course my service. Proud of my Vietnam service. Who else asks through the command for Las Pulgas? Proud Marines all around. Semper Hi-Fi.