MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
Nestled among the Carolina pines along Parachute Tower Road sits a humble log building, home to the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune Conservation Law Enforcement Office. Inside the cottage, one can find an array of mounted animal busts, large caliber ammunition, and five CLEO officers, who make it their daily duty to defend the very environment that civilians and Marines dwell in.
“Years ago, it was Marines who were in charge of Game Warden duties aboard their installations,” said Paul Boniface, the chief US conservation officer for the CLEO. “They needed people to enforce the rules of the base, and I was one of the Marines tasked with this duty.”
Since then, the Marine Corps, seeing that they needed programs to free up the Marines, starting transitioning to making conservation law enforcement a civilian job.
Today, Boniface and his team of CLEO officers, some of which served previously in the Marine Corps, now enforce the conservation, hunting, and fishing regulations over the entire Camp Lejeune area, to include its satellite installations like Camp Geiger and Camp Johnson.
But an office full of retired Marines and law enforcement careerists offers more to the base than the mere enforcement of fishing permits; the job comes with a certain rapport that only those with history in the field are credited with.
“You don’t see many young guys in this job field,” said Alfred Belanger, a CLEO officer. “We’re talking about a job that requires you to approach three or four guys in the woods and they’ve all got guns. You have to have a little bit of salt to be up for it.” Marine Corps Order 5090.4A outlines the mission and duties of the officers as far as how business should be conducted by a CLEO officer.
Even with years of experience between the officers, it’s difficult for a small staff to catch every crime while it’s being committed. What the office lacks in personnel, however, they make up for with skill and operational readiness.
“We divide up the base into areas for each officer to patrol, and we have vehicles ready on both sides of the river,” said Patrick O’Neal, a Conservation Law Enforcement Officer. “At any time, we’re checking for trespassers, hunting violations, endangered species tampering, for both plants and animals, and dumping on base grounds.”
The job requires a variety of skills that make a conservation law enforcement officer perusing the grounds a force to reckoned with by those violating the laws of the land. The officers are not only effective marksmen with shotguns, pistols, and M16 rifles, but also understand animal/vehicle/human tracking and can recite the reference of any of the citations that they are likely to be issuing.
“We have to be very diverse in our job,” said Belanger. “The job has changed from what it was 20 years ago. The game warden’s office has expanded to become the Conservation Law Enforcement Office, a much more comprehensive federal organization.”
But it isn’t the thrill of catching a crook or the protection of the land that compels the officers to wake up and protect the base. Boniface attributes the desire to do the job to a natural desire to serve the ecosystem that they live in.
“You have to enjoy and appreciate this job, because you’re living it all hours of every day,” he said. “It’s something that is in our core. We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t love it.”
United by a common bond, the officers each bring something to the table that keeps the CLEO sharp and knowledgeable for the sake of each other and the public alike.
“Everyone has their own forte,” said Belanger. “For example, the chief is very passionate about duck hunting, Wilcox is an avid deer hunter who can tell you the expected color of the tail before they even grow and Officer O’Neal is a turkey fanatic.”
Not only can they speak on the biology of them, but the CLEO officers also know the art of hunting them, as they teach the North Carolina Hunter Education program and the International Bow Education Program to any interested person, hunter, or bow hunter.
With such a diverse knowledge base between the officers, Camp Lejeune can rest assured that the CLEO officers carry out their jobs proficiently, expertly and professionally, with the utmost reverence for the Camp Lejeune environment.
“The thing to remember about us is that there are ears and eyeballs on the highways and byways, but we are the ears and eyes of the woods,” said Wilcox.