When Marines traveling to Lake Keowee for several days of rest and relaxation made a stop in Easley Monday afternoon, they were greeted by a spectacular sight.
More than 400 vehicles – motorcycles, Jeeps, Humvees and police cars were stationed at the J.B. “Red” Owens Recreation Complex, ready to escort the Marines to Keowee Key in high style.
The returning Marines, primarily from Camp Lejune, will enjoy three days of rest and relaxation at the homes of Keowee Key residents, according to event spokeswoman Sandra Magee.
40 Marines, some of whom have been deployed multiple times, traveled to Keowee Key Monday and will leave Thursday.
The event aims to help the wounded Marines heal, Magee said.
“The wounds can either be physical or something you can't really see,” she said. “It's something that they're dealing with and this is just an opportunity to recognize them.”
The event is sponsored by the Communities 4 Warriors program, a non-profit organization that works with the Roger C. Peace Rehabilitation Hospital in Greenville to put on each event.
“They provide the therapists and equipment for those who may be physically challenged to participate in the activities,” she said.
Keowee Key residents host Marines in their homes for three nights, Magee said.
Each day is filled with fun activities for the Marines, she said.
“They do water skiing, jet-skiing, kayaking, fishing, ride ATVS, archery, tennis, golf,” Magee said. “It's a way to thank them. They need some down time, some depressurization time, to just do something fun. And it's really a chance for the community to get to know them, talk to them.”
Tuesday evening, the Marines will be a part of veterans service in Seneca, recognizing all Upstate veterans.
“The public is invited,” Magee said. “It's at Gignilliat Park in Seneca. There's a wonderful fireworks show at the end. The community just comes out.”
The service begins at 6:30pm.
On Wednesday, “there's more fun,” Magee said, then the hosts and the Marines will gather for a special dinner.
On Thursday, the Marines will make one last stop before returning.
“Clemson Univesity hosts them at the West End Zone,” Magee said. “They do a wonderful job. They put their names up on the Jumbotron and they go in the weight room. They get to run down the hill. They experience Death Valley.”
The Marines Corps select the Marines to go to Keowee Key.
“They know which ones are in need and which ones are available to come,” Magee said.
Some Marines, upon learning they've been selected to go, “feel like they've won the lottery,” she said.
“Because they've heard so much about it from previous groups that have come,” Magee said. “It's like, 'I really want to go.'”
This is the fourth consecutive year Keowee Key has hosted the Marines.
The event continues to grow, particularly the number of motorcyclists who help escort the Marines.
A number of groups helped make the Marines feel welcome, including the Upstate Legends Jeep Club, the Marine Corps League and the Patriot Guard.
“It's a collective effort,” she said. “It's a way of saying thanks, honoring their service.
Magee said Keowee Key is a “very giving community.”
“They do lots of things in Oconee County and in Pickens County,” Magee said. “This is a program that they have really embraced,” she said.
The welcome continued as the Marines left the park in their motorcade. Residents lined the motorcade route, waving signs and flags, as the Marines traveled through the Upstate.
“It's really a community event,” Magee said. “It'll give you goosebumps.”
Marine Eric Lambert said that events like this one help Marines readjust when they get back home.
“It's really amazing,” he said.
That transition back to normal life after being deployed can be hard for some people to understand, Lambert said.
He talked about how the music playing on the radio when he was deployed was long off the air when he returned and how little changes, such as McDonald's accepting credit cards now, can be disconcerting for someone just back from a deployment.
“When we come back, whether we're just over in Camp Lejune or we're in Beaufort, South Carolina, or we're in Iraq or we're in Okinawa, Japan, when we come back, there's a culture shock,” Lambert said. “The high standard the Marine Corps holds its Marines to – 'Warrior First,' something like that, how do you translate that back?”
Making that readjustment is important, if sometimes hard, Lambert said.
He talked about how it important it was to not be “a professional veteran,” avoiding all contact with civilians and the home life they left behind.
“Guys will come back, where all they do is associate with veterans,” Lambert said. “Instead of making those good, normal relationships that are important, getting to know your neighbors, stuff like that. I think it's hard for people to see that when we come back, we are isolated.”
As a 23-year-old University of Kentucky college student, Lambert said it was hard for him to relate to 18-year-old freshmen.
“We had nothing in common,” he said. “They're talking about boating or playing golf or something like that, I'm like, 'I like shooting AR-15s, I love hand-to-hand combat.'
“Transitioning not back to being a civilian – we're always going to be Marines – but to civilian life, that's important,' Lambert said. “It's that transition that a lot of guys have trouble with. Events like this right now, that's what's going to help them transition and go back and be a part of a community.”
If you would like to help support this annual event, visit http://www.c4warriors.org/Donations.html.