Dili, Timor-Leste -- They arrived with very little in hand, but their impact was great. Smiles and exclamations were abundant as the young children threw themselves at the service members in an explosion of cheers and hugs.
Marines and Sailors with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and crew of the USS Denver (LPD 9) were greeted by a barrage of excited children during two community service and cultural exchange visits in the city here, Aug. 28 and 30.
After offloading elements of the 31st MEU in Darwin, Australia to conduct Exercise Koolendong '13, those that remained aboard the Denver received the opportunity to participate in visits to the Bidau Akadiru-hun elementary school and the Ahisaun Foundation for disabled persons.
“Whenever we pull into port somewhere, there’s almost always a (community service event) of some sort,” said Sgt. Binh D. Kien, a 23-year-old field artillery cannoneer with Echo Battery, Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 31st MEU, and a native of San Jose, Calif. “For a lot of us who go (to the events), it's all about giving back. In a way, they've allowed us to visit their city and have been hospitable toward us, so this is the least we could do.”
The first event brought the service members to Bidau Akadiru-hun elementary school and the attention of doting crowd of children. The group sang children’s’ songs together, played games like duck-duck-goose and tag, and handed out school supplies were before leaving. The Marines and Sailors received the movie star treatment as they attempted to board the busses back to the ship as every child insisted on an American signature on their hands, notebooks or shirts.
The second visit was to the disabled people’s foundation where the Marines and Sailors interacted with special needs individuals under the foundation’s care. Locals from across Dili spent time with the service members in a day of talk and laughter.
“Some of the locals who are cared for in the program may think less of themselves because of their (disability),” said Lance Cpl. Levi J. Dallman, a 23-year-old machine gunner with Company F., BLT 2/4, 31st MEU, and a native of Waukee, Iowa. “We’re here telling them that’s not true, that they’re just like anyone else and others think that same way too.”
Projects like the ones in Timor-Leste do more than release the service members from the confines of a steel ship in port. The visits help to build rapport with the people of an allied nation and strengthen existing bonds. The benefit for the service members lies in the cultural experience.
“It makes (the Marines and Sailors) more culturally knowledgeable, more-so than they would be if they just stuck to military training and partying during liberty call,” said Navy Lt. Kyu C. Lee, the 45-year-old chaplain for Combat Logistics Battalion 31, 31st MEU, and a native of Seoul, Republic of Korea. “(Events like these) embed them into the local culture instead of skimming it and shows them the full-scope of how the people live and work.”
After two days of interaction, the Marines and Sailors had to literally tear themselves away from the children at both locations. The bond created will last both parties a long time.
The visits happened during Exercise Koolendong 13, where a battalion-sized force of the 31st MEU trained alongside Marine Rotational Force - Darwin and soldiers of the 5th Royal Australian Regiment during a week-long, live-fire exercise. The 31st MEU is the Marine Corps’ force in readiness for the Asia-Pacific region and is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU.