Missionary turned sniper translates humanity in East Timor

15 Jun 2007 | Sgt. Eric McLeroy

Sergeant Gary Jorgensen towered over the locals who crowded the worksite here. At midday, his sun-splashed face reddened and suffered the disadvantages of fair complexion, traits of his family tree whose roots gripped the soil of Denmark. The local community leader was unaffected by the tropical sun. His skin was tan and leathery, less from age than living in a tropical setting in the South Pacific.Jorgensen, 25, stood close to the man and listened as he explained the community?s concerns in mixed Portuguese. The Marines and Sailors from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and Boxer Amphibious Ready Group were in Dili to transform an abandoned radio station into the Dili Community Youth Center April 9-11.A scout sniper by trade, Jorgensen normally lurks in the shadows, observing the enemy from great distances; however, at the project site, local children and community leaders surrounded him, eager to hear him speak on behalf of the Marines and Sailors. The unrelenting sun heated the lush, green vegetation that overwhelmed the grounds and caused thick waves of humidity to rise like smoke from a fire. He was exhausted from merely walking. He was used to the dry, dusty heat of Utah where he grew up hiking, hunting and camping. But as he wiped the sheets of sweat from his freckled brow, he remembered the Sao Paulo, South Mission in Brazil.Raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he answered his call to missionary work in Brazil in 1995, a year after high school. His routinely squinted eyes opened wide in favor of talking about his faith rather than his many accomplishments, including the Marine Corps? annual rifle squad competitions. "I felt like I was on my mission again. The only purpose I had here was to help people," he said with an audible sigh of relief. "We weren?t an occupying or peacekeeping force. We were a group of people helping another group of people." For two years in Brazil, he studied and preached his faith but also committed himself to mastering one of Brazil?s native languages, Portuguese. While there, he learned all aspects of the language including slang that allowed him to convey his personal feelings. His ability to communicate his feelings, despite their obvious chasm of differences, earned the people?s trust in Brazil and East Timor, he said."In Brazil, I had to enter another person?s house and convey to them that I was there to make their lives better. I had to develop the skills to speak (their language) comfortably in front of a person or group," he said. "In East Timor, we had to be diplomatic and earn the chief?s trust. Being able to speak his language was a huge asset just like in Brazil."Having Jorgensen at the site negated the need for a United Nations or civilian translator, and allowed the site commander, Maj. Vincent Lumalcuri, to communicate with the locals without fear that his message would be misinterpreted."We were self sufficient and got to know the people and made them our friends," Jorgensen explained. "Having a Marine able to speak the language had a lot to do with that. I think it helped us."Throughout the three-day construction project, Jorgensen spoke to the local leaders and laborers about the MEU(SOC)/BARG?s involvement and concern for East Timor?s successful transformation to a free country. He talked to the men over lunch and through his trademark exuberance, made a personal connection with them. But his talents weren?t limited to diplomacy.He was the conduit for professional dialogue between local engineers and Navy Seabees, a detachment assigned to United States Support Group East Timor. The community center needed electrical wires installed, and Jorgensen was there translating between the two parties. By the end of each day, even his thoughts were in Portuguese, he said affectionately."I look at it as a skill, not my number one priority, but a skill that I don?t want to lose," Jorgensen said of being bilingual. "It was mutually beneficial for the Marine Corps and myself. The MEU needed a translator and I could practice the language."Battalion Landing Team 2/1?s intelligence officer learned of Jorgensen?s language skills in the same manner as other battalions. Each unit maintains a roster of Marines who are bilingual and description of their second language. This practice provides small unit commanders another asset when deployed to foreign countries on missions ranging from humanitarian assistance to reconnaissance.For BLT 2/1, Jorgensen and Cpl. David Zinn were the only Marines who spoke Portuguese, and both were at the project site. When the project ended, Jorgensen returned to the ship, feeling good about what he accomplished and those he met. He sent an email to JaNae, his wife of two years, expressing the joy the experience had brought him. "She was happy that we helped the people, and I was able to feel the same as when I was a missionary," Jorgensen said. "When I saw the community center go up, I had the same feeling I had when I saw families baptized in Brazil. I haven?t been able to feel like that in a long time."

Marine Corps News

Colonel Jim W. Lively
Commanding Officer

Colonel Lively is a native of Dallas, Texas. He received his commission in 1996 through the Platoon Leaders Course program after graduating from Texas A&M University with a BA in Psychology.

Read Biography

Lieutenant Col. Le E. Nolan
Executive Officer

Lieutenant Colonel Nolan is a 2001 graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology and received his commission through Officer Candidate Class 180. After completing flight training as a CH-53E pilot, he reported to HMH-361 in MCAS Miramar.

Read Biography

Sergeant Major Travis L. DeBarr
Sergeant Major

Sergeant Major DeBarrĀ enlisted in the Marine Corps and reported to MCRD San Diego, CA, for recruit training in October 1994.

Read Biography

11th Marine Expeditionary Unit