Ever so discreetly, fresh layers of paint are being spread onto church walls. Wobbly banisters fortified. Lawns manicured.
Each quiet act undertaken since the deaths in Iraq this week of 11 Marines based here at Camp Lejeune seems fortified by a sense of stoic resolve. This town, set in the dusky pine woods of eastern North Carolina, knows about loss. It has sent generations of young fighters to faraway places, and its residents know that some will be hailed at memorial services rather than at parades.
"There are preparations going on here that are not the kind the public would want to know about," said Angie Seevers, who spent more than a quarter-century worrying about her husband's far-flung missions with the Marine Corps. "We're waiting now. We know there's more to come."
In many ways, Seevers -- who is helping to establish a new Marine museum here -- and others around town began preparing, emotionally and otherwise, for the deaths announced this week long before bombs began falling.
Pastors held meetings with military clergy to coordinate plans for memorials. The priest at Infant of Prague Catholic Church, a self-described "Marine brat" named Thomas R. Davis, compiled a list of his parishioners who would be sent to Iraq. There was something about all the work that made them feel part of the war effort.
But the Marines and their spouses made the most wrenching preparations. They took classes instructing them how to update their wills, how to designate guardians for their children and how to set their finances in order. A wartime mindset settled on the place. The certainty that great risks lay ahead was lost on almost no one.
Maybe that's why it was so hard for Shelley Pokorney to say goodbye that day, not so long ago, when she put her husband, 2nd Lt. Frederick Pokorney Jr., on a bus. Her husband never talked about dying; he didn't have to, Shelley Pokorney said. They both knew what could happen on the sands of the Middle East.
"When he left, I knew he wasn't coming home," Pokorney said today, smiling and fighting back tears. "I just had a feeling."
But even in her grief, Shelley Pokorney pledged to move on, to date again, to care for their 3-year-old daughter. Frederick Pokorney, 31, who like most of the other Camp Lejeune Marines died in an Iraqi ambush near Nasiriyah this week, would have wanted it that way, she said.
Someone asked her not long ago whether she had any doubts about starting a family, about being married to a fighting man, knowing the risks. No way, she said.
"What can I do?" Pokorney said. "He was a Marine, and he did what he loved."
Hers is a cycle that is both familiar to, and dreaded by, the people who love this place, the people who love the Marines and the military life. The flush of wartime patriotism is followed by the endless worrying and, sometimes, by an awful knock at the door. It is little wonder that so many decide to stay here, even after their military service is over.
This town is "home" now, Seevers said. The people on her block in Jacksonville understand what she has lived through; they like the idea of camaraderie. She wanted to keep that, even after her husband retired, even after their 27-year marriage ended in divorce and he moved away.
Seevers couldn't help but think today about the other dark afternoons since she has been here, and the way she saw her friends cling to each other. Worst of all was the day in 1983 when a terrorist bomb exploded in Beirut, killing 241 troops, most stationed at Lejeune. The bomb exploded in a time of relative peace, catching Seevers and her friends, even the most battle-hardened among them, off guard. It was so much different from the deaths this week, losses that pained her, but that she was ready for.
"It would be difficult to describe the sense of sadness that hung over the city that day in 1983," Seevers said.
Now, 241 Bradford pear trees stand along the road leading up to the main gate of Lejeune, one for each of the troops lost in Beirut. There were sad processions along that road in the past two days, cars filled with another generation of red-eyed spouses. Station wagons pulled to the side of the road all day, and drivers stepped out resolutely with homemade signs. They tacked the messages on the roadside fence, then drove away: "We support our troops," "Don't forget our fallen heroes." Hamburger deals gave way on fast-food marquees to messages of hope and consolation. One read, "We salute our nation's heroes." No one had to stop to ask who the signs were talking about this week.
"Not to be trite, but we've been here before," said retired Col. Bruce Gombar, who was chief of staff at Lejeune and is now head of the economic development agency in Onslow County here. "This community rallied behind those families [after the Beirut bombing]; we're prepared to do that again today."
Lots of Gombar's buddies are in Iraq. One, Col. Mike Williams, came out of retirement and shipped out for the battlefield. Gombar prays each day for Williams to come home safe. But there's something else he thinks about, too: "In many respects, I envy him," Gombar said. "He's out there in it."