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Sgt. Azemar King was brought to Iraq to fix vehicles -- but he also made friends with some of the youngest Iraqis.

Lauren and Azemar King

The week before Christmas 2004 found Sgt. Azemar King, a recent veteran of the war in Iraq, with Mayor Ray Nagin and other celebrity Santas, passing out toys in the city's housing projects. King, a 13-year veteran of the Marine Corps Reserve, businessman and father of four children, has served as a metro-area volunteer coordinator for the Marines' Toys for Tots program since 1996. A preliminary report shows that the Corps, working with the mayor and Associated Catholic Charities, helped collect more than 37,000 toys this Christmas.

In 2003, King and his fellow reservists were exchanging toys with children in war-torn Iraq -- but it wasn't for Christmas. They were hoping to make friends and avoid tragedy. No one wanted to mistake a child for a sniper. "So, if a kid had a toy gun, we would trade with him and give him a ball," says King.

In May 2003, King's unit, the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines, moved up from Kuwait to Al-Kut, south of Baghdad -- near the Iraq/Iran border. King's unit was the first to relieve the initial invasion force, the 1st Marines. "There was still sporadic fire," he recalls. "You didn't know where it was coming from."

Al-Kut was like a border town, dusty and dirty. Some Iraqi children went to school, but many were working. The Marines were billeted at Blair Air Field; whenever they came to town, they were surrounded by excited and curious kids, King recalls. "The kids loved us. They would run out to the road out to meet us as we drove by."

Making kids happy is an avocation for King, but the Marine Corps sent him to Iraq because of his expertise as a mechanic. "I was maintenance chief for all transport vehicles -- Humvees, 5-ton and 7-ton trucks," he says. His unit had responsibility for ensuring the timely transportation of water, food, mail and other critical supplies to Marines throughout southern Iraq. "We were so spread out," he says. "It was a logistical nightmare."

Tires were a major problem. The treads were solid, but the sidewalls tore easily from the war debris that still littered the roads. "The slightest thing would tear them up," King says. Sometimes, the Marines would bring the damaged tires to the Al-Kut marketplace for repairs, a place that King describes as similar to a flea market in downtown New Orleans.

King's stay in Iraq ended in September 2003, and his tour passed without incident. During his five months "in-country," King and his fellow mechanics would occasionally don their battle gear for night patrol "to give some other guys a break." At one point, a grenade landed on the roof of a police station at Al Kut, he says. Some Army MPs were injured, but no Marines.

The weather posed its own dangers. "The heat was more of a concern," he says. "It got up to 120 degrees three days in a row. By 9 a.m. it was over 100 degrees." Despite the heat, only mechanics were allowed to take off their shirts, and only if they were working on a vehicle. Even then, they were required to keep their undershirts on.

A graduate of John F. Kennedy High School, King grew up in the Seventh Ward. When he deployed, his ailing mother was in a nursing home and his wife, Lauren, had just given birth to their fourth child. "I left a 2-week-old son, so I was a little homesick," he says. "But I know many Marines who didn't get to see their children born. So, I missed a lot of sleepless nights -- which I had in Iraq -- but I got home before he started walking." (The Kings also have two girls, then 14 and 12, and a son, who was 5 when his father deployed.)

King's mother died before he came home. "My mom passed a week after I called and told her I was on my way home," he says. "But I got to tell her that I was safe and I was fine."

King talks about his wife as if he is recommending her for a medal. "I left her with the business, three kids and a new baby, and we had just moved into a new house in Algiers," he says. King owns ClimbMax Indoor Rock Climbing Gym; his wife ran the business while he was gone and has continued to manage it since his return, he says, proudly. When King returned from Iraq, he got a promotion and re-enlisted. He is aiming for a 21-year military pension. When he left Iraq, his unit was trying to train the Iraqi police force. If he returns, he says, "I'd like to do something with the kids over there."

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