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From Cameroon to Camp Fallujah: One Darkhorse story

14 May 2006 | Cpl. Mark Sixbey

A second deployment to Iraq puts one Darkhorse Marine much closer to where he began his life.

Lance Cpl. Dave-Stephan Mandeng, a small arms repair technician with Combat Transportation Platoon, Headquarters and Support Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment was born into to the Bassa tribe in the African country of Cameroon, located on the western side of the continent between Nigeria and the Congo.

The needs of the mission here have pulled him out of the armory and placed him in a humvee, providing security as the platoon conducts regular re-supply and escort convoys to locations throughout the battalion’s area of operations.

Mandeng says being on the road with the threat of improvised explosive devices is definitely a different experience than repairing weapons inside the battalion’s armory.

“In the armory, you’re worried about statistics and numbers,” said the 22-year-old. “It’s precise work, but you’re not actually worried about your life.”

Often times, Mandeng is required to provide security for the transportation of suspected insurgents who are detained by fellow Marines. At one glance, detainees knows better than to try their luck with this particular guard. Standing 5 feet 8 inches tall and able to bench-press more than 300 lbs., he’s never had a problem with unruly detainees.

The Bassa are just one of more than 225 individual ethnic groups in a country that was heavily influenced by both Britain and France in the 20th century. Mandeng speaks English, French and Bassa. His family moved to the United States when he was 13 years old to escape civil unrest in neighboring communities.

“It was a big change,” said Mandeng, who moved to Baltimore, Md. from Africa when he was 13 years-old. “Africa’s a really crowded place and people are really amicable, and when you come to the States, privacy is a really big issue. Also, a lot of holidays in the States are not part of our history in Africa, so naturally we don’t celebrate them.”

Mandeng graduated from Pallotti High School, a private school in Baltimore, in 2002. He was at school when he had watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

The decision to join the Marine Corps came that summer while he was driving through Baltimore with his mother and a parade blocked their route. They took a detour and stopped in front of an office building with a large sign.

“Handily, it’s a recruiter’s office,” Mandeng said. They went inside and the Marine recruiter informed him of the opportunities that come with service in the Marine Corps, and he signed the papers.

“What I didn’t catch that day until I was standing on those yellow footprints, was that the man knew my name before I walked in,” Mandeng said. “I didn’t catch it then, that she’d been there and talked to the guy and set up the meeting.”

Most recruits would prefer not to stand out during recruit training at Parris Island, and he thought his British accent could be a problem.

“Boot camp was actually easy for me, for one simple reason-- there was a guy that was worse off,” he said. “He was from the Congo, had just joined, just came from the Congo, so his accent was much thicker.”

Mandeng’s family had prepared him for the move to America since he could talk. He even memorized the U.S. Constitution word-for-word, as well as all four verses to the Star Spangled Banner while still in grade school. He has slowed down his speech to sound more American since joining the Marine Corps, but still peppers his sentences with colorful, grandiose phrases.

“His grammar is superior to mine and anyone else I know,” said Lance Cpl. Brandon Chapman, a motor transport mechanic who often shares a vehicle with Mandeng during the platoon’s frequent convoys.

“He’s good at making sure the crew stays awake on night runs,” said Sgt. Juan Rubio, Mandeng’s team leader. “He’s always got something to say that’s pretty funny. I’m always glad to have him in my truck.”

“He doesn’t shut his mouth the whole way there,” said 20-year-old Chapman, from Lancaster, Calif. “He rambles about nonsense and keeps us laughing.”

“He brings a good personality to the table and gets along with everybody,” said Rubio, 25, from Alhambra, Calif. “I’ve never had a problem with him other than little things, but in my opinion he’s got a good future in front of him.”

He also employs his quick wit and masterful command of words to create music, weaving together complex rap lyrics about life and his emotions, painting a picture he describes as ‘Perfect Depression.’

“I don’t consider myself a musician, more of a music fan,” Mandeng said.

His friends disagree.

“Being someone who’s been around rhyming before, I can say big words just seem to come to him,” Chapman said. “I have no idea what’s going through his crazy mind.”

Mandeng said his original plan was to go to college in order to join the Marine Corps, but instead feels that the discipline and experience he’s gained during his enlistment will help him towards his degree. Trickery aside, it’s all for the best, he said.

“Four years ago, if you’d have told me that right now I’d be sitting in Iraq for the second time of my life—even a month before I’d joined, I’d have laughed at you,” he said. “It was an after-college thought. But now I’m happy I did it before. Really happy.”