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AROUND THE FOOTHILLS / BY DOUG SMITH

Persian Gulf War Correspondents Now Get Chance to Meet

May 23, 1991|DOUG SMITH

The party for the victory in the Persian Gulf War is just now starting to roll at the Harrower Laboratories building in Glendale. And it isn't going to be over soon.

Harrower Laboratories is that distinctive old brick building on East Broadway, the one with the green awning, the home-style flower beds and the giant American flag draped across the front wall.

It's a landmark, built by a pioneering endocrinologist who manufactured a formula to stimulate the glands. After World War II, it became the Los Angeles Chiropractic College, which stayed 30 years. In the early 1980s, Integrated Systems Group, a computer firm, bought the building and, without government prodding or support, assumed responsibility for maintaining its Gatsby-era charm.

The story from ISG today, however, concerns neither medicine nor historical preservation. It's about the role of civilians in war.

It began early in the mobilization when the employees at ISG resolved to show their support for the men and women in uniform. First, they put up yellow ribbons around the two palm trees in front of the building. They displayed the flag.

When someone read a notice in The Times on how to write to service members, administrative assistant Cheri Martin and maintenance man David Bandley, whose business card reads "Director of Aesthetics," committed themselves to write a letter a day. Soon, others in the company joined the daily ritual.

One of their early letters read: "Hi! Just a quick note to let you know our hearts are with you. We appreciate your good work and sacrifices on our behalf."

The first reply came from Brandon Braun, a Marine from Wayne, Mich. He was bored and hoped to be home by Christmas. "P. S. I'd like to hear a little about you."

Next, Marine Kenneth D. Salazar wrote:

"It's the support of fellow Americans like yourselves that keeps our spirits flying high."

As the weeks dragged on, the list of war correspondents grew. Second and third replies were traded.

Martin began a scrapbook. It has become a rare reflection upon the war contained in some 70 personal letters and enclosures including photos, unit insignia and Christmas cards.

Most of the letters began with some variation of the same thought: "First let me thank you for writing. . . ."

They were addressed to Cheri, to "Hot Chic," to "Mom," to others on the ISG staff and, increasingly, to "The ISG Family."

They talked of boredom, fear, anticipation. Without the slightest delusions, they foretold combat.

"I guess to a certain point my hopes of this ordeal getting over soon and peaceful have died!" wrote Lance Cpl. Ken Stenberg on Dec. 16. "So be it. That's what I'm down here for and even though it sucks, it's my job!!"

Over time, some exchanges grew personal. "I find it real hard to believe that you don't know how to slow dance," sailor Robert Hannon wrote Martin on Jan. 15. "Have you spent all your time with the cats?"

Few details of combat arrived. Cpl. Eric Ruiz said he only got off his ship during a mock amphibious landing.

"Felt pretty let down at first being out here for so long and not doing anything, but I was wrong," he wrote March 11. "We did do our job and I'm grateful for our success."

Cavalryman Ray Bisson wrote from inside Iraq that flying dirt from mortar shells had proved his greatest hazard. He rescued an injured dog.

"He's sleeping in my sleeping bag right now."

The most brutal description came after the war from Cpl. Pete Marckmann, stationed in Turkey in support of Kurdish refugees.

"These people need help, your help, my help, everyone's help!" he wrote April 26. "I have personally seen the starvation, death and despair that these people are miraculously surviving."

As the mobilization wound down, some of the correspondents mentioned possible visits to the ISG Family. Martin decided that they should all come. She wrote a "Mother Hen" letter asking each to forward a stateside address.

The first to make it was Marine hydraulic technician J. J. Edwards. He drove up from Twentynine Palms. There were the usual awkward moments as Edwards met two of the company's three owners and about a dozen salesmen, technicians and administrative staff.

After a barbecue in the courtyard behind the building, the group retired indoors, forming a circle in the foyer. For hours, they poured over every aspect of the war, as seen from Edwards' view on the island of Bahrain.

Late that night, they delivered Edwards to a motel, on them.

"I told him I did not want him to make it through Saudi Arabia and then come home and get killed on the freeway," Martin said.

The plan is to have a barbecue every time one of the ISG correspondents gets to Southern California. Next in line is sailor Michael Jacobs, who will be restationed to Long Beach in June.

The parties will go on at least until September, when Brandon Braun, the soldier who wrote first, most often and most cheerfully, will be training in Twentynine Palms.

"He's got a regular harem out here," Martin said.

In her case, it looks like the party may never end. She's become a Gulf War Mom for life.

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