Marine Air Ground Task Force 26: A Calling Answered

People join the military for different reasons. Some join the Marine Corps to travel, others for money to go to school, but for one Marine from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit it was to answer a calling. It came to Cpl. Kenneth Vandame when he was sitting in English class at Dansville High School in Dansville, N.Y. The principal came to his classroom and talked to the teacher. Soon every television was turned to the news and Vandame watched as planes crashed into the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center, Sept. 11, 2001. He left his school in a state of shock.“I was awe struck,” said Vandame. “I wanted to do something. I wanted to do my part.” This drive became even stronger once he learned the fate of two of his friends. Vandame had changed high schools his freshman year. There was no reason for him to know his two friends were in harm’s way. They were on a field trip for their business class. They died in the Twin Towers that day. Vandame later learned a distant cousin was also at the World Trade Center that morning. He perished as well.Shortly after graduation, Vandame and his high school sweetheart married and had their son Jakobe. “I still felt like I wasn’t doing my part,” he said. “I was also looking for stability for my family.” With another baby on the way, Vandame left for Marine Corps Recruit Training with his brother in July of 2006.“I wasn’t worried about boot camp physically, but mentally … My wife was six months pregnant when I left,” he said.The fear of the unknown was coupled with knowing his wife had complications during her first pregnancy. After Recruit Training and Marine Combat Training, Vandame went to Marine Corps Communications-Electronics School in Twentynine Palms, Calif.“I checked in to comm. school Nov. 15 … the day my daughter was born,” he said. The radio operator joined the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit March 2008.When he got the news that the MEU was going to take part in the commissioning of USS New York, the Navy’s newest landing platform dock and a ship built around the Navy-Marine Corps team, Vandame was ecstatic.“I was excited, because it was an opportunity to take part in an historic event that was centered on the reason I had decided to join the Corps in the first place,” he said. The new ship was built with 7.5 tons of steel salvaged from the World Trade Center and was commissioned in New York at Pier 88 on Nov. 7. “When I found out I could reenlist at ground zero, it made it that much more significant.”Surrounded by cranes working to transform the area, Vandame and three other Marines from SPMAGTF-26 reenlisted inside the reconstruction site at ground zero, Nov. 4.“It was emotional to say the least,” said Vandame who had not been to the site since its destruction. “It truly helped to reconnect with those feelings and desires to serve.”It hit home even more when he visited the Tribute World Trade Center Visitor Center. The center features salvaged memorabilia as well as a memorial wall for those lost.“On the actual site wasn’t as hard as going to the tribute center,” Vandame said. “There it really took you back. You could see where you were like it was yesterday. The quotes are what really hit me.”Quotes from survivors lined the walls, each recount what they thought at the time. “An event like that is engraved in your memory like a tattoo that can’t be removed,” he said. “This trip was like a double edge sword. It was great to visit and see how far it has come, but emotional at the same time.”

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