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Hometown hero on third tour of Iraq

USMC MSgt. Willie Ellerbrock of Valencia due home in '09

Posted: November 10, 2008 5:55 p.m.
Updated: November 11, 2008 8:03 a.m.

U.S. Marines with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (3/5), Regimental Combat Team 1 (RCT-1) secure a schoolyard during a patrol in the Andaloos district of Al Fallujah, Iraq on Jan. 29, 2008.

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Most Americans are home safely celebrating Veterans Day because of the sacrifices made by members of our armed forces, past and present.

Among those marking the day overseas is U.S. Marine Corps Master Sergeant Otto W. ("Willie") Ellerbrock, a Valencia resident and USMC reservist who is public affairs chief for the Multi-National Force - West (the MNF-W, for military acronym fans). 

Based at Camp Fallujah in Iraq's Al Anbar province, Ellerbrock, 45, is on his third tour of duty in the Middle East, and his second in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. This hitch began in late January and he's due home in February or March.

Ellerbrock is originally from New York and Panama City, Panama, and an avid baseball fan, runner, golfer, SCUBA diver and community volunteer. He's been a Marine for 27 years, with another three to go before he hangs up his fatigues and retires. His home unit is the First Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, Calif. His most recent civilian job was Western regional operations manager for DHL Express.

"I'm the senior advisor to our public affairs director, Lt. Col. Hughes, who's public affairs advisor to Major General John F. Kelly, the commanding general of the Multi-National Force - West," Ellerbrock said via phone hookup from his office in Fallujah. "I edit print, interact and help the media when they want to embed, and do everything logistically to make sure our Marines and the media when they come are taken care of."

Ellerbrock's responsibilities include ensuring that combat correspondents gather news and feature materials for military as well as civilian media outlets; responding to queries from the civilian media; serving as media liaison during operations/exercises; conducting community relations programs; producing print and photographic materials; and editing/producing command newspapers and/or magazines.

Dealing with pesky media-types in a war zone has its challenges, but it's not the toughest part of Ellerbrock's job.

"It's being separated from my wife, Nicole, and our three kids, Tyler, 7 1/2, Racquel, 5, and Rheanna, 4," he said. "I'm missing a lot of their firsts."

The Ellerbrocks' son is a second-grader at James Foster Elementary, Racquel is a special-ed kindergartner at Santa Clarita Elementary and Rheanna is a pre-schooler at Foster. Nicole, a longtime executive assistant at Disney, is now a stay-at-home mom who anchors the family while awaiting her husband's safe return.

The sacrifices she and other military wives, husbands, sons, daughters and other family members make are as significant as those made by their loved ones in the service.

"Of course, I miss him and wish he were here, but I'm always very thankful," Nicole said in a separate interview. "I tell my son Tyler his dad's doing it so he doesn't have to, and so other sons and daughters and fathers and mothers won't have to do it. I tell him his dad loves his country so much, he wants to do everything he can to protect it."

If there is such a thing, a typical day in Ellerbrock's life begins around 6 a.m., with some running. "That's one of the things we use to release stress and have some sense of normalcy," he said. "Then I go to breakfast, start my day roughly around 7:30, 8:00, see what's hot for the day, and line it up. Then around 11:30-12, go to the afternoon chow for half an hour, then start preparing the operations brief for the commanding general. It's a synopsis of what (media) we have planned for him.

"Once the brief is done, we start looking at what's ahead for tomorrow, and start planning," Ellerbrock continued. "We look at stories due out the next day, do some edits, check out the photos we have, look at any requests or queries from the media and respond.

"After that, I try to get a phone call in to the wife - that's a must," he said. "I encourage my guys to do the same thing every day. Then, it's getting ready for calling it a night. I try to kick everyone out no later than 9 p.m., because everyone puts in a good solid 14-15-hour day, and that's a lot. We start all over again the next day. It's one big ‘Groundhog Day,' that's what I call it."

Ellerbrock, who enlisted at age 18, right out of high school, said he joined the Marines because of a sense of duty.

"I think back to people like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, who had great careers in baseball," he said. "World War II broke out and what did they do? They put those great careers on hold because they felt their sense of duty to serve their country. I love this country. It has opened a lot of opportunities for my family. We're immigrants. We're Italians, Cubans, Germans -- all one big soup, my family. And we're patriotic. Everything that has to do with the American dream, we are that. So that was my motivation."

Ellerbrock is just one of the 1,500-2,000 Santa Clarita Valley residents serving actively in the military, according to Sandy Baer, president of the SCV Blue Star Mothers #91 support group, which will participate in Veterans Day ceremonies at Veterans Historical Plaza in Newhall.

"It's a great day to remember all of our veterans and their families, and be thankful for everything they've done to protect our freedom," Baer said.

A couple of years ago, Anbar province was one of the most dangerous places on the planet, never mind Iraq. Things are different now, Ellerbrock said.

"It's turned completely from two years ago when it was kinetic type of conflict," he said. "It's now more of a civil military operation, where we're out there helping the public get back on their feet. This is where the reserve Marine comes into play, because we've brought experts in economics, in the rule of law, education, you name it - all the services essential to have some sort of civil structure.

"We are coaching, training and mentoring our Iraqi counterparts to make sure they assume the roles and are able to stand on their own feet," he continued. "That just happened Sept. 1, when we turned provisional control back to the Iraqis here in Anbar, a symbolic event that two years ago, I could never have fathomed."


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