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BUILDUP IN THE PERSIAN GULF : U.S. Marines' '911 Squad' Answers Yet Another Call : Military: 'When the balloon goes up, we go,' says sergeant headed for Gulf from Southland on short notice.


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 in northern San Diego County, and 299 other Marines who will get tanks and trucks and other equipment ready 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 a naval base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, where they will board ships headed for the Persian Gulf.

The remainder of the 18,000 Marines from Pendleton will be called for duty, 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 them 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've 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 with what is a sometimes difficult period of adjustment after troops head for possible battle.

There was an air of uncertainty Sunday among Marines who frequent San Clemente, the seaside town at the north edge of Camp Pendleton. They wondered how far the situation would escalate and if they would see combat, as Iraqi troops continued to mass near the Kuwaiti border.

"The worst part is waiting to find out," said Lance Cpl. Joseph Garvey, 24. "My roommate is being called back (to the Persian Gulf). I'm willing to go too. That's my job."

Outside Coach's Corner Sports Bar and Grill, Lance Cpl. David McCartney hugged two sobbing women who had just heard a rumor that their boyfriends--both Camp Pendleton Marines--might be sent to the Gulf.

"Everything is word-of-mouth right now," McCartney said as he tried to reassure the women. "People aren't sure who's going."

The Marines who flew out from March Air Force 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, and they began forming a line beside the 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."

Then, as he stepped in, Lee turned around and waved. "We'll be home soon," he vowed.

Times staff writers Tina Daunt, Len Hall and Greg Hernandez contributed to this story.

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