SATTAHIP, Thailand --
After 10 days at sea, followed by 10 days of hard work and tough training with Royal Kingdom of Thailand service members, Marines and sailors with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit were granted a well-deserved break and released for four days of rest and relaxation in Pattaya, Thailand. While many soaked up every moment of available fun in the sun, more than 150 MEU members sacrificed a few hours of their personal time to continue working alongside their Thai counterparts to serve the people of Thailand one last time before departing the tropical nation.
The men and women of the MEU joined forces with members of the Royal Thai Navy and Marine Corps to help more than 550 elementary school children attending two schools in Thailand by donating more than 100 boxes of clothing, backpacks, toys, teaching English, playing soccer, and sharing smiles.
U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ray Bailey, the 31st MEU command element chaplain, said it was time well-spent for the U.S. service members and an important aspect of a grass roots international community relations project known as Operation Good Will.
“The purpose is really three-fold,” said Bailey. “The highest priority is to serve as ambassadors for the U.S. Naval services and enhance international relationships between the U.S. and Thailand. It also allows the Marines and sailors a chance to serve unselfishly to help out those in need, while they themselves are blessed and encouraged by it.”
Finally, Bailey said, the event offered each of the volunteers a wholesome alternative way in which to spend their time in the country – an opportunity to experience what he calls “the real Thailand.”
Those affected most, the children of Ban Khao By Si and Wat Som Nak Katon schools, seemed eager to learn and happy to have the American and Thai service members as their guests. Throughout the event the children helped to break a sometimes challenging language barrier with smiles, waves and earnest effort in trying out new English phrases such as “What is your name?” and “Thank you.” Many of the children carried notebooks from person to person, asking service members to write out their names and their favorite activities. Hospitality offered by school officials also included snacks showcasing local exotic fruits, allowing the MEU members to get a taste of the local fare.
“They made the Marines and sailors feel like movie stars,” said U.S. Navy Lt. Joseph Blair, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, chaplain. “Many of them who were attending one of our community relations events for the first time said they would be back at every opportunity.”
Principal Geisara Pouaknang of Ban Khao By Si School said the events would have a positive impact on her students and their long-term well being.
“My students are very excited and like the activities very much,” Pouaknang said. “The activities stimulate my students and encourage them to be more active. When they go home, they will talk about this with their families for a very long time.”
So will the Marines and sailors of the MEU. For now though, they busy themselves with the return trip to their home port in Okinawa, Japan, as they begin planning for future training opportunities and stand ready to serve as the nation’s only continuously forward-deployed Maritime Contingency Force.