KUWAIT -- For many Marines serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom at an air base here, this is their first time to the Middle East. For others, this is another deployment after serving in Operation Southern Watch or Operation Desert Storm years ago. However, one Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron 3 Marine serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom is relatively familiar with the area - he used to spend summers with family in nearby Saudi Arabia.
"My mother emigrated from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia," said 2nd Lt. Karriem Johnson, MWHS-3 communications and future operations officer. "When she came to the United States her husband died. She married a man from Jamaica and when he died she moved back to Saudi Arabia."
Johnson, 30, San Diego native, was home schooled as a child and brought up in the Islamic faith. During the summers of his elementary and junior high school years, he visited his grandmother in the Middle East - it was the family tradition.
"Once I joined the military in 1990 we did frequent deployments (to the Middle East) and I got to see my cousin, so I kept that tradition alive," he said. "This is the first time I've been to the Middle East in four years though."
Johnson started his military career 13 years ago when he enlisted in the Navy as a cryptographic interpreter. When the Navy tried to force him to lateral move into supply, Johnson finished his degree in computer science and received a commission in the Marine Corps. He wanted to work in the intelligence or infantry fields, but landed a job in communications.
Although he still has family in the Middle East and in Ethiopia, he considers California his home since most of his family lives in San Francisco, San Diego, Riverside and Studio City.
"To me you always have people with relatives in some country," he said. "This is not my home. I just consider this a port call. Our family right now is centered in California."
Since he visited each year during his youth, Johnson was prepared for the differences in living conditions here compared to the United States. He was also used to hearing the prayers, or Salaat, several times each day in the Mosques, because he would attend with his grandfather.
"I feel for the people around here," he said. "It's natural human instincts to reach out and try to make their lives better.
"When I hear the Salaat it brings back old memories of going with my grandfather. He would sit on the left side in the front with the elders and we would sit there with him. Everyone who wasn't an elder would sit on the right and all the women sat in the back. It was interesting sitting there with all these old people."
Married for 10 years with two children of his own, Johnson often reflects on how the Marine Corps approaches deployments to foreign lands based on his own experiences here, and on the future for his children.
"The one thing I strongly wish is that they'd teach a little more about the people," he said. "It's a learning experience for a lot of people. Too often our advice about courtesies and customs come from strict traditionalists. Much of this country is modern, although you still have the traditionalists. A lot of times we get our mindset from an old traditionalist. It's good to know the traditions though - it shows you the value of their history. My mother often talks to my kids about how she grew up."
The Johnson family holds a reunion each year in California every September. He said because no one really looks alike they introduce themselves by telling whom they're related to.
"When you go to our family reunion nobody looks alike," he said. "You never tell them who you are - you tell them who your mother is. A lot of families hold reunions every five years, but we do it every year to get together and count kids to see who's got the most.
"No one's every gotten divorced in my family," he said. "I think that's got a lot to do with upbringing."