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Why We Serve: Small-Town Marine Broadens Horizons in Iraq

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 8, 2008 – With the aid of an unmanned aerial vehicle -- what she refers to as “a little bird with a video camera” -- Marine Sgt. LaDilvia S. Gregg used her eyes to safeguard troops on the ground.

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Marine Sgt. LaDilvia S. Gregg is a participant in the Defense Department's Why We Serve public outreach program.
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

As an imagery analyst in Iraq in 2005, Gregg often spent 12-hour days scouring before-and-after photos while looking for changes to the landscape. These subtle “disturbances” are sometimes the only evidence that an improvised explosive device, the deadly roadside bomb responsible for the most U.S. deaths and injuries in Iraq, is buried underground.

Gregg, a modest Marine whose efforts to sniff out IEDs likely saved U.S. troops’ lives and limbs, is one of 10 servicemembers selected to tell the military’s story to the American public. As a member of the Defense Department’s “Why We Serve” outreach program, Gregg shares her tale of service at community and business events, veterans’ organizations and other gatherings.

From a Marine base in Taqaddum, Gregg issued advice to ground forces in Iraq based on aesthetic details imperceptible to untrained eyes. Gregg said that about half the time her analyses proved nothing more than red herrings: landscapes seemingly altered by insurgent handiwork actually were changed by natural forces -- a breeze that scattered dirt, a road surface muddied by a rain shower.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re wasting a unit’s time because they don’t find anything,” she said. “It is hard to tell whether it was an old IED hole, a new IED hole, or if it’s nothing at all.

“But sometimes,” she continued, “it could be an IED troops dug up before, and insurgents put another one in the hole.”

With 50-percent accuracy, Gregg protected ground forces from deadly buried homemade bombs from a bird’s-eye view. In addition, Gregg and her team, using images taken near Iraq’s border with Syria, helped troops interdict rogue trucks smuggling tons of stolen oil.

“That was another big success we had,” she recalled. “We saved the Iraqis a lot of money.”

Like many other servicemembers, Gregg’s desire to enlist was born of a hope to gain worldly experience -- and practical training -- she couldn’t receive in her small hometown. After graduating from high school, the Florence, S.C., native worked in a local bowling alley. Gregg said she moved beyond her hometown, but that she wasn’t yet prepared for college.

Having settled on enlisting, but unsure of which branch she’d enter, Gregg met with recruiters from each service before making her decision. The Marine Corps captured her attention, she said, because people regaled her with stories about the difficulty of the Corps and the level of commitment it demanded from Marines.

The prospect of becoming a member of what she considered the most challenging branch motivated Gregg instead of intimidating her. “That’s why I did it. It was the most challenging service,” she recalled. “I was going to join the Army, but I went with the Marines. If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it just to show you that I can.”

In August 2001, Gregg began her service 160 miles from home at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, S.C. A month later, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks shook the nation and set in motion events that ensured Gregg would see unfamiliar parts of the world.

During her first tour in Taqaddum, Gregg provided troops a set of eyes in the sky; in her second deployment, however, Gregg served fellow Marines on a more gut level. As the “chow NCO,” or the noncommissioned officer in charge of dining facilities, Gregg worked nonstop from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., seven days a week. She moved 700 pounds of food throughout “chow halls each day. To ensure the health of her Marine comrades, Gregg was responsible for enforcing strict regulations for food quality.

In the meantime during deployments, the ambitious Marine dedicated a daily three hours to studying schoolwork through the American Military School, through which she hopes to earn an associate’s degree in accounting. In addition, Gregg wants a bachelor’s degree in intelligence, perhaps parlaying her education into a career at the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Maybe I’ll be coming back to the Pentagon,” she said.

But before transitioning into the civilian sector -- which the Marine says she’s in no rush to do -- Gregg will embark on her third deployment to Taqaddum in April.

“I love going on deployments. People think it’s bad being away from your family, but you’re with your unit so much that it becomes your family,” she said. “It’s like being with your sisters and brothers; it’s like a big sleepover in the girls’ barracks, staying up all night talking. It’s like having a home away from home.”

If not for the Marines, Gregg said, she likely would have given in to the complacency of easy life in her hometown.

“I would probably still be sitting at home working at the same bowling alley I was at before I left,” she said. “The Marine Corps gave me initiative to challenge myself. I don’t think I would have challenged myself as much as a civilian.”

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