NAME: Staff Sgt. Jeremy Westlake
HOMETOWN: Browning, Ill.
ROLE: Company armorer/combat engineer
CAMP VIPER, southern Iraq—Charlie Company stands in formation, in enemy territory, in the middle of a war.
"Sergeant Westlake, front and center," 1st Sgt. Brian McCoic says.
Forty-five Marines stand at attention in the sand, in front of a ditch that is about 4 feet deep. It's the "Oh no!" hole, in case of a missile attack. It would offer some protection, but not much. The Marines face three rows of white, two-man pup tents, set up in trenches.
Staff Sgt. Jeremy Westlake walks to the front of the formation, squaring his turns. He salutes Maj. Mike McCarthy and McCoic.
McCoic reads a proclamation, promoting Westlake from sergeant to staff sergeant.
"You've been looking for this for a long time," McCarthy says, pinning the chevron on Westlake's flak jacket. During a normal promotion, the chevron would be pinned to his collar. But the Marines had been wearing biochem suits for weeks on the recent day the promotion took place. "I expect more out of you. I know you'll give more. It's more responsibility."
McCoic says he hopes to move Westlake into a platoon where he can lead more Marines.
"He's becoming a staff NCO (noncommissioned officer)," McCoic says. "Corporals and sergeants make things run. Staff NCO's set things up more. They are more like teachers."
Westlake has known about his promotion for months, but he's excited by the ceremony. "To get it out here is entirely cool," Westlake says.
After the ceremony, he takes off the metal chevron and puts on a plastic one in the middle of his flak jacket. The metal ones chip.
Westlake, 28, is a combat engineer for Charlie Company, 6th Engineer Support Battalion. He grew up in Browning, Ill., and joined the Marines as an escape. "My town had about 300 people, and I wanted to get out of the little podunk town," he says. "I wanted to go places, see things."
Westlake was on active duty from 1993 to 1998, deploying to Haiti in 1994, Bosnia in 1995 and Liberia in 1996.
"When I went to Haiti, I had just joined, and we took people out of the embassy," he says. "It was pretty exciting, considering I was a little private first class."
He left active duty in March 1998 and checked into the reserves a few days later. He works as a corrections officer at the Jacksonville Corrections Center, a minimum-security prison near Springfield, Ill.
"I'm very happy to be back playing in the Marines again," he says.
"For me, it's going back to what I've done for years. For some of these guys, who have never been overseas, they were shell-shocked. But they've taken on an active-duty attitude."
This is his fifth overseas deployment, but it's the first time that he's been gone as a husband and father. Westlake and his wife, Molly, have a daughter, Justice May, who will turn 3 on April 26.
"She is everything to me," Westlake says. "I worry about being gone from her. She's a reason not to get whacked. You don't want your little girl to grow up without a dad."
When he joined Charlie Company, Westlake became the company armorer. "We didn't have a real armory for a couple of years," he says. "I'm in charge of the upkeep on weapons, the paper trail."
And he's in charge of trying to keep them all working. Of 112 M16 rifles in Charlie Company, Westlake says, about 20 need parts, but still work.
"Out here, the sand gets into everything," Westlake says. "That's the biggest problem with rifles; the sand constantly gets in there. It keeps the bolt from sliding back and forth."
Most of the equipment that Charlie Company uses is old. One of the .50 caliber guns was made in 1936.
"This unit has been to Korea and Desert Storm, so I think the .50 cal has been in both," Westlake says. "I need some parts for it, but it works smooth. All our gear is old, worn down. I have weapons that are broken down and can't get parts."
After getting promoted, several members of Charlie Company prepare to leave on a mission to blow up a decoy tank. They will get a chance to fire their weapons, to make sure they work.
"I've got to earn my money," Westlake says. "What do I get after this promotion? Fifty bucks more a payday?"
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ILLUSTRATION (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): iraqfaces+Westlake