A sweaty Marine wearing woodland camo fatigues waves motorists through the gate of Camp Lejeune for the Independence Day gala – but not before eyeing each vehicle and its occupants closely.

Families tow coolers and push strollers along the base’s main drag, Holcomb Boulevard, to WPT Hill Field. At 5:30, a Marine combo kicks off the evening with a smorgasbord of pop tunes, from Gary Numan’s 80s classic “Cars to “I Can Only Imagine” by the Christian rock band Mercy. Concession stands crank out funnel cakes, fresh-squeezed lemonade, Polish sausage, and hot dogs. There are children everywhere -- infants, toddlers, teens. It’s a sprawling affair – last year had upwards of 20,000 guests – but it’s fairly low-key, subdued, and profoundly family-oriented.

There’s an area roped off for relatives of men in the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is deployed to Afghanistan, and Marines of the 24th MEU, which leaves for Baghdad on Tuesday. The 24th is returning to Iraq ahead of schedule for what looks to be a seven-month stretch. There aren’t too many 24th MEU families out tonight. With less than 48 hours before the unit’s departure, most are presumably huddling at home, squeezing out every last bit of quality time. 22nd MEU wives Robin and Kelly wrangle their collective brood of energetic and good-natured kids. We talk briefly about deployments. They're hardest on the kids, Robin says. We chat some more, but this is really a night for the kids, for festivities and fireworks.