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Visits from family members help healing process

8 Aug 2006 | Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin

When Army Maj. John W. Penree decided to pay his nephew, Marine Sgt. Peter A. Penree Jr., a visit in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, the timing couldn’t have been better.

The circumstances, however, probably could have.

Both men are currently deployed to Iraq – Penree Jr., serves with the Hawaii-based 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment in western Al Anbar Province; Maj. Penree with the Wiesbaden, Germany-based 3rd Corps Support Command in Balad, Iraq.

Penree Jr., a 23-year-old Marine infantryman from Frankfort, N.Y., was wounded recently when a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with explosives into a U.S. military outpost just south of this sprawling U.S. military air base.

He’s spent the better part of two weeks recovering at a military medical facility here.

When his uncle found out about the injuries, he decided to expedite his plans to travel the hundred or so miles from Balad to Al Anbar province to visit his wounded nephew.

Maj. Penree caught news of his nephew’s injuries after speaking with family members back in the States, he said.

“Initially, I received a report…that he was injured, but I didn’t know the severity of the injuries, I just knew it was a large blast,” said Maj. Penree, a 49-year-old from Hartwick, N.Y. “Later on I was told that he was O.K., and that the injuries were not life threatening.”

As soon as his command allowed him, Maj. Penree hopped a convoy and made the trek to Al Asad – a fortunately uneventful road trip. The convoys he was on didn’t encounter any improvised  explosive devices – roadside bombs used by insurgents to target coalition and Iraqi Security Forces.

A long time coming

Still, roadside bombs or not, the major wasn’t about to miss seeing his nephew. He hadn’t seen him in five years.

Multiple deployments for both men have prevented any type of family reunion for the two U.S. servicemen. When Sgt. Penree received orders to a Marine Corps unit in Hawaii, Maj. Penree was deployed to Greece. Whenever one was stateside, the other was deployed. 

In fact, the last time they saw each other was during a family party in New York; a “going away” party for Maj. Penree, who was gearing up for a deployment to Bosnia.  That was five years ago.

“We’d try to stay in touch as much as possible,” said Maj. Penree. “I had back-to-back deployments. Between the joint NATO command (in Bosnia) and Afghanistan, I just haven’t been around.”

Both men served in Afghanistan, too:  “You were there about two years after me,” said Maj. Penree to his nephew after thinking about what years each served combat tours in Afghanistan. “Yeah, we missed each other by two years.”

Reunion in a combat zone

Now, both men are finally stationed in the same country, during the same deployment, in Iraq. A reunion was inevitable, according to the senior Penree.

“It was my intent always to visit my nephew, but this has made it even more important to come out and see how he’s doing,” said Maj. Penree, who has spent nearly nine months in Iraq.

Sgt. Penree has about two months left in Iraq before heading back to Hawaii. He has orders to another Marine Corps unit on the east coast of the U.S., he said.

After seeing his nephew is indeed “OK” with his own eyes, Maj. Penree said the two have spent time “catching-up.”

It wasn’t a family reunion with barbeque and beers, but it’ll do.

“I know that Peter’s so tough, that he’d tell me he’s OK no matter what,” said Maj. Penree. “(But) there’s been a lot of catching up, a lot of issues discussed – light subject matter, heavy subject matter.”

With his wounds healing quickly, Sgt. Penree says he’s looking forward to rejoining his unit, which arrived in Iraq four months ago. Penree is part of a team of Marines who work daily to prepare Iraqi soldiers for eventually relieving U.S. forces of security operations in this region, which is progressing, he said.

“They’ve (Iraqi soldiers) responded to trial and error. The ones I’ve worked with, they’ve experienced things, a lot of hard lessons learned,” said Penree, who comes from a family where military service has become a tradition.

A Penree family member has served in every major U.S. war since World War II. Most Penrees have served in the U.S. Army, with the exception of Maj. Penree’s brother, who served in the Navy in the late 1960s, and Sgt. Penree, who joined the Corps in 2002.

“Peter broke the mold,” said Maj. Penree. “I believe he passed up a signing bonus from the Army recruiter in order to join the Marines; he said he wanted more of a ‘challenge.’”

Sgt. Penree said his other uncle, on his mother’s side, sparked his interest in the Corps. 

“He told me a lot of stories about bootcamp and the DIs (drill instructors) and stuff like that,” said Penree. “(It’s) all the stuff you see in the movies; (Marines) seem to be the risk takers. If you’re going to be in the infantry, you may as well be in the Marine Corps.”

“You could have joined the 10th Mountain Division,” interrupts Maj. Penree, jokingly.

Regardless of any playful inter-service rivalry, the Penrees both agreed that seeing family in Iraq makes the deployment that much easier.

Brothers in blood, brothers in arms

The Penrees aren’t the only ones who’ve had the benefit of reuniting with a family member while serving in a war zone.

“It’s a bond that you can’t break, especially in war. You can’t beat that,” said Cpl. Anthony R. Martinez, a Marine mechanic here with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

Martinez, a 21-year-old from Bay City, Mich., said it was a “weight off his shoulders” when he linked up with his younger brother, Lance Cpl. Daniel J. Martinez, at the same medical facility where Penree is being treated.

The younger Martinez brother, a 20-year-old infantryman serving with the southern Calif.-based 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in Rawah, Iraq, was also wounded when a different suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden vehicle at one of his unit’s outposts last month. 

He was transported to the same medical facility as Sgt. Penree.

“I told my mom that we’re both on the same base…she said, ‘Oh, thank God,’” added the younger Martinez brother, who enlisted in the Marine Corps two years after his older brother to “get out of the house.”

Week of “family reunions”

For wounded U.S. service members like Penree and Martinez, who have both spent days recuperating in a medical facility miles away from their fellow Marines and units, the sight of a family member often provides extra comfort to other relatives back home, according to Navy Chief Petty Officer Terry D. Green, the senior enlisted advisor at the Marines’ regimental aid station here.

In addition to Penree and Martinez, a U.S. soldier who was injured during combat operations recently in Hit, Iraq, received a surprise visit at the Regiment’s aid station from his wife, who works as a civilian contractor in another part of Iraq.

“It helps the healing process and it helps the family back home know they’re alive and well,” said Green, who says it’s been a week of “family reunions at the RAS.”

Several months ago, Lance Cpl. Ian Eichel, a 23-year-old Marine with Regimental Combat Team 7’s motor transportation section – another Marine unit headquarters at this sprawling airbase - reunited with his younger brother, 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Aaron J. Eichel, a field radio operator in the same unit as Penree.

The two Marines, natives of Canton, Mich., also have a younger sister, 19-year-old Andrea, who is in the Marine Corps.

“I beat his rifle score at boot camp,” said the older Eichel, as Aaron shook his head and smiled during their meeting here in March.

While Ian will remain in Iraq until next year, Aaron is nearly done with his deployment. They, like the Penree’s and Martinez brothers, cherish the few times they can see each other – a stark contrast from when they were growing up

“We only see each other once a year,” admits Ian, who hadn’t seen his brother in nearly year prior to their March reunion.

Last week, in a solemn Sunday morning ceremony inside RCT-7’s headquarters building, Lance Cpl. Martinez was promoted to his current rank, along with another wounded Marine from his unit.

Cpl. Martinez was on hand to pin his new brother’s rank on his uniform.

“It really shows its true colors, having a family member there, especially having him at the same base,” said Lance Cpl. Martinez after the promotion ceremony, smiling at his brother. “It helps.”

Email Staff Sgt. Goodwin at: goodwinjm@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil