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O.C. Marines Among Those to Answer Call


MARCH AIR FORCE BASE — Stashed among the gear of one Marine boarding a troop transport plane headed toward the Persian Gulf from this Riverside County base Sunday was a memento of the last time U.S. forces faced Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein--a faded American flag.

"It's worn and tattered but still in good shape," said Master Sgt. William Lee, a lean 20-year veteran who had the flag with him during the seven months he spent in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm and Desert Shield. "I just can't wait to bring it home again."

Lee, who is based at Camp Pendleton, and 299 other Marines whose job it will be to ready tanks, trucks and other equipment for arriving troops had been mustered to this desert air base beginning at 1:30 a.m. from Pendleton and the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in San Bernardino County.

They and 65 Navy personnel were about to fly in three C-141 Starlifters to Diego Garcia, a naval base in the Indian Ocean where they will board ships headed for the Persian Gulf.

A total of about 700 Marines and sailors made up Southern California's contingent to the Persian Gulf on Sunday, including the 350-person Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 166 from Tustin Marine Air Corps Station that was deployed in June to the Indian Ocean and moved in ships off the coast of Kuwait on Saturday.

The remainder of the 18,000 Marines from Pendleton will be called for duty in the Gulf, the Pentagon said Sunday.

Wearing camouflage battle fatigues and carrying gas masks and M-16 rifles, all spoke of sudden goodbys, of wives and children who have learned in recent years that the Marines are the nation's "911 squad," as one put it, ready to fly off in a matter of hours into a distant hot spot.

At least half had seen action during the Persian Gulf War nearly four years ago, and some seemed eager to go back.

"I hope we can go over . . . and do what we should have done the first time," said a 25-year-old corporal based at Twentynine Palms, referring to the fact that Hussein remains in power.

Marine Sgt. Keith Luzbetak, 25, also based at Twentynine Palms, said simply: "This is what we are trained to do. When the balloon goes up, we go."

Luzbetak went to the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm, but this time around he has a 6-month-old daughter to think about.

"It's just the life I lead," he said. "That's what's entailed in being a Marine and a father at the same time.

Sgt. Mark Fernandez, a 30-year-old tank mechanic, said the wives and husbands left behind by war or preparations for war always have to take on additional duties.

"She's got to be mother and father all by herself," Fernandez said of his pregnant wife, Yvonn, who will also be caring for an 8-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter.

He said every mission away--whether for combat or for training--reminds him anew of how quickly children grow up and how much he misses when he is gone. "I don't see the kids for a while and then I come back and they're totally different."

Marines from Camp Pendleton and Twentynine Palms not only served in the Gulf War, they have been back to Kuwait every year since to participate in a drill called Native Fury. They have also participated in extensive desert training exercises in northern Africa and were part of the humanitarian relief and security missions in Somalia.

Lt. Col. Jerry Broeckert, a spokesman at Camp Pendleton, said the most important thing for troops being called up is to make arrangements so that their families will be cared for while they are away.

He said support groups are being formed to help family members left behind with what is a sometimes difficult period of adjustment after troops head for possible battle.

With the standoff between Hussein and Kuwaiti ground forces continuing, it was impossible for these Marines to know how long they will be gone or what, exactly, they will do after completing the initial task of making sure that fighting forces will be well-equipped and ready to hit the ground running.

The Marines who flew out from this base Sunday are part of a U.S.-led mobilization of up to 38,000 troops as well as aircraft and warships to counter Hussein's deployment of nearly 70,000 Iraqi troops near the Kuwaiti border. Four U.S. Navy ships carrying 2,000 Marines are nearing the northern Gulf, and 4,000 Marines are due to arrive in Kuwait in the next day or so.

At 12:30 p.m. Sunday, a sergeant began calling off the names of those in the all-male unit assembled at March AFB, and they began forming a line beside a bulky green transport plane. Some stood bareheaded under the hot sun and unseasonably clear blue sky, while others wore canvas hats or helmets. A few joked quietly among themselves, but many seemed almost grim.

"I have to go and do what I have to do . . . and hopefully be home before Christmas," said Cpl. Damien Gray, a pink-cheeked, 21-year-old mechanic from Pennsylvania who sports a barely noticeable blond mustache.

Master Sgt. Lee brought up the rear. The way he described the unit's mission made it seem almost like a counseling session rather than part of the process of preparing for a possible war.

"We have to teach them how to get along," he said. "Everybody in the world needs to learn to get along."

Times staff writer Tina Daunt contributed to this story.

* READY AND WAITING: Pendleton Marines uncertain who will head for Gulf. A10

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