One the Spotlight, Veterans, Volunteers

Vietnam-era Marine couple shares their story

For many, the idea of everlasting love is something we read in romance novels or a thing of fairytales, but for retired First Sgt. Louis Griffin and Marine veteran Arlene Griffin, finding lasting love was as real as it was joining the Marine Corps. These two lovebirds met more than four decades ago on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and six months later wedding bells were ringing.

“We met in Building 59, it was the women Marines barracks back then,” said Arlene. “He was with 7th Force Recon on temporary assignment duty with the military police, I was communications. We drove home that summer and when we got back, we got engaged.”

As the Griffins shared the story of how the Marine Corps brought them together, I was enchanted by their personality and the tenderness of how they held hands and giggled as the other one shared something about them.

“Six months later, we were married. We got married here at the chapel,” said Louis. “She is my life. Meeting her gave me a reason to continue.”

Louis and Arlene celebrated their 43rd wedding anniversary in January. As they looked back, they reminisced of the changes they have witnessed in the past few decades since meeting each other.

“There were only about 135 (female Marines) here on base,” said Louis. “They had security around their barracks at night time and walked post with a shotgun.”

Arlene smiled as she caressed Louis’ shoulder.

“I arrived here in a plane,” said Arlene. “A wooden plane,” said Louis finishing Arlene’s sentence with a smile. “The propellers were made out of wood,” continued Arlene, as my jaw nearly dropped to the floor. “We landed in the middle of a cornfield,” said Arlene, with a girly chuckle. “I was like ‘Oh God where are we?’”

According to the Griffins, Camp Lejeune changed tremendously since the early ‘70s with the Marine Corps withdrawal from Vietnam, as the base focused on modernization.

When Arlene joined the service, her heart was set on getting an education and the Marine Corps gave her that opportunity.

“My parents had six girls and one boy,” said Arlene. “That is a lot of kids to put through college and I didn’t want to put that burden on my parents.”

For Louis, joining the service was an opportunity to build a better future.

“We lived approximately 60 miles from Bloody Kemper,” said Louis. “I’m from a mixed family. My grandfather was a black man and my other grandfather — on my mom’s side — was born a slave. He was a tough old man,” said Louis. “We ran a farm. It was a hard life. Hard, but a good life. We didn’t go hungry. We farmed. We had cows, hogs, cotton, we cut grass, sold hay and all sorts of things. We didn’t get our first TV until I was 13 years old. After I graduated, I joined the service.”

Louis and Arlene’s boot camp experiences were remarkably different.

For women in the ‘70s, boot camp consisted of learning to be a lady, taking etiquette classes and learning to apply makeup.

“We were support,” said Arlene. “We came here to support the men, so they could go to war.”

Louis chuckled as he reminisced how Arlene had to wear high heels and a girdle while in full uniform.

“You had to have certain bras, white gloves and a full slip — regardless of the weather,” said Arlene. “And you had to wear red lipstick.”

For Louis, his boot camp experience was “No Rose Garden” as the famous slogan reads. For men in the 70s, drill instructors were as charming as a Freddy Krueger emerging from a bathroom mirror.

“You got beat up a lot,” said Louis. “It broke you, but it was part of training. A lot of things have changed. There was a lot of racism in Vietnam, the base wasn’t that bad. This town has changed a lot thanks to Mr. John Gray,” he continued as he explained how a curfew was established and Marines were not allowed to go downtown. “You could not leave Camp Lejeune, he took Jacksonville off the map. He said ‘any Marine caught there will be court marshaled’ things started changing after that — it took a long time, but it was the beginning.”

According to Arlene, downtown Jacksonville was not always the charming, commerce-driven town we know today. With the economic growth in the mid to late ‘70s, businesses flourished everywhere and downtown Jacksonville became known for attracting undesirable businesses and criminals to the area.

“Back then, downtown Court Street reminded me of Bourbon Street. It was wild,” said Arlene. “Marines used to get robbed left and right. You’d not believe what it was like.”

Arlene got out of the Marine Corps in 1977 to start a family. Louis is a Gulf War veteran who served for two decades and retired in 1992.

“She got out because we wanted to have kids,” said Louis, who after retirement worked 20 years for the state. “Then she got cancer, so I said ‘I’m going to take care of my wife’ and retired from civil service. We both went through it. I had no symptoms and no side effects. I didn’t know I had it, because it was so small.”

Despite life’s challenges, for the Griffins the words “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health,” are just as real and strong as the day they said their vows.

Louis and Arlene can often be seen at the Tarawa Terrace gym as they kick-start their day with a 5 a.m. work out. When the Griffins are not at the gym, they are volunteering. They enjoy giving back to the community and are very involved in helping the less fortunate.

“Now that we are both retired, our main thing is volunteering and doing what we can to make life better for all,” said Arlene. “When (Louis) retired we started volunteering at the soup kitchen and then with Feed the World Bank. “We go to the farm and volunteer,” said Arlene. “We do the regular Tuesday at the soup kitchen.”

“We go in the field and we pick collard greens, mustard greens, cantaloupes and corn,” said Louis as he listed some of the crops they pick to deliver fresh produce to local nonprofits that assist indigenous citizens. “We load the truck and the first stop is at the Richlands Outreach, we give them half of it and then, we go to the (Onslow County) soup kitchen.”

According to Arlene, many of the volunteers who help pick crops to benefit the less fortunate, are seniors.

“We got people out there who are in their 90s and they’re out in the field. We are the young ones,” said Arlene. “We got a guy that has one leg and is out there helping.”

The Griffins remarked the importance of giving back and the abundance of resources available to help.

Editor’s note: Story by Ena Sellers, written for the Camp Lejeune Globe.

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