Sailors, Marines volunteer while visiting for Sailabration

Gabby Johnson, left, a sailor on the USS San Antonio, slices watermelon at Baltimore Station shelter. She and others who were in the city for Sailabration volunteered.
Gabby Johnson, left, a sailor on the USS San Antonio, slices watermelon at Baltimore Station shelter. She and others who were in the city for Sailabration volunteered.(Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

About 60 sailors and Marines who shipped into Baltimore for Sailabration, the maritime festival marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812, combined shore leave with community service. They spent Monday volunteering at the Baltimore Station, a transitional housing and counseling center for men, many of whom are veterans.

They were among the 4,000 military men and women who visited the city during Sailabration. They took in the sights, sampled the fare and, in many instances, donated their time and talent to local projects before their ships left Tuesday. Groups of volunteers fanned out across the area. They planted community gardens, painted fences, packed Meals on Wheels, landscaped the grounds of a 19th-century home with a War of 1812 connection, unloaded trucks at a food bank and built an outdoor lab for young scientists.

"It is important to let the public know that we are not just a military machine," said Mass Communications Specialist First Class Todd Stafford. "We are also humanitarians trying to keep people safe. We are helping with these community projects."

On Monday, the volunteers arrived ready for work at the Baltimore Station in the Riverside neighborhood.

"We won't be asking you to rappel from the roof or tunnel under the building," said Alaric I. Phillips, the program's outreach volunteer coordinator. "You don't have to get into full military mode. We just want you to set up for a volunteer luncheon, plant a container garden on our roof and make collages."

Some engaged the veterans in long conversations filled with shared experiences and advice.

"This is a chance to interact with these veterans and hear their stories," said Lt. Jeffrey Hoyle, a dentist assigned to the USS Fort McHenry.

Others put together colorful party decorations, but no one shied away from the more strenuous kitchen and planting duties. Hoyle was among several men installing a rooftop garden in the rain.

"The rain is really no bother," he said. "It's like this every single day at sea."

Petty Officer First Class Jacquet Colbert typically prepares meals for 70 at his base in Norfolk, Va., so a few dozen more entrees were not difficult. He just told the others on kitchen duty to "follow my lead and do your part."

Lance Cpl. Joseph Miranda, a radio operator at Camp Lejeune, N.C., said he learned his way around the kitchen from his grandmother at an early age. He savored his chance to cook and easily stirred a hefty pan full of baked beans.

"This is the beauty of the Marines," he said. "We go where we are needed and today, we are needed here."

Petty Officer Joy Bonwell, a radar technician in Norfolk, served Meals on Wheels last week and tossed salads at the Baltimore Station on Monday. While she waited to tackle the next course, she listened to what she considered sound counsel from the veterans at the center.

"We try to do community service in every port," she said. "It's our give-back."

Baltimore gave back, too, she said. She visited several Inner Harbor attractions and Fort McHenry, her ship's namesake. She saw the tall ships and met sailors from other navies and learned much about Baltimore.

"There is a lot of history here that I had not experienced before," she said.

The sailors and Marines said they greatly appreciated the welcome Baltimore afforded them.

"We have been to an Orioles game, talked to people touring our ships and visited many places," Hoyle said. "We heard so many thank-yous from so many people. It is a simple thing to say, but it makes all the difference."

Master Chief Michael Hart was a towering presence in his Navy whites as he made his way among the many hubs of activity at the center. He frequently stopped to shake hands and tell residents that he appreciated their service.

"Hang in there," he said to Michael Smith, 58, and gave him a military coin.

"This is a sign of respect," Hart said. "It recognizes our common bond and the sacrifice that everyone in the military makes."

Smith clutched the coin and said, "This means a lot to me. I will share it with the people here."