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O.C. Marines Prepare for Return to the Gulf : Deployment: As in Desert Storm, Southland troops will provide early logistic support and firepower.

October 11, 1994|MATT LAIT and H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As 18,000 Marines in Orange County and elsewhere in Southern California were put on alert for possible deployment to the Middle East, most troops conducted their business as usual Monday, while some began packing their desert combat equipment and prepared for war.

But wherever they were, whatever they were doing, the specter of another Gulf war still loomed large in the minds of the Marines, some of whom were asked to put their lives on the line nearly four years ago in Operation Desert Storm.

"Some Marines are watching this on the edge of their seats," said Sgt. Dave Hiersekorn, a spokesman for the Tustin and El Toro Marine Corps air stations.

As in Operation Desert Storm, many Southland Marines, especially those at El Toro and Camp Pendleton, will be among the first troops in the Persian Gulf, providing logistic support and the initial firepower in the event of a fight.

About 100 Marines from Camp Pendleton, the largest Marine base on the West Coast, were expected to be transported either Monday night or today to March Air Force Base near Riverside for deployment to the Persian Gulf.

All of the 18,000 Marines on alert are part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which is made up of 45,000 to 50,000 troops at the six bases throughout Southern California and Arizona. Those on alert, however, are mostly at the Twentynine Palms and El Toro bases and Camp Pendleton.

The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force's mission is to help coordinate the arrival of equipment, supplies and combat troops in Kuwait, officials said.

Hiersekorn said some Marines in Orange County, who would be among the first troops in the Persian Gulf, wore electronic pagers Monday so they could be contacted immediately in the event of deployment orders. He added that Marine officials at El Toro and Tustin were drafting contingency plans involving thousands of local Marines for different combat scenarios.

Military officials do not have a breakdown of which bases the 18,000 troops will be coming from. However, about 350 Marine pilots and support personnel from Tustin's Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 166 already have been redeployed from the Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf.

During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Marines from Orange County played strategic roles in the areas of military logistics and ground troop and air combat support. About 5,000 men and women in the El Toro-based 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing came from Orange County.

That wing included CH-46 Sea Knight and CH-53 Sea Stallion troop transport helicopters from the Tustin air station, which moved supplies and personnel near the Kuwaiti border in preparation for the ground attack.

Even before the Marines steam-rolled over the Iraqi army in that conflict, artillery units from Camp Pendleton unleashed their 155-millimeter howitzers on Iraqi ground positions, while F/A-18 Hornet jet fighters from El Toro pummeled Iraqi troops and military facilities from the air.

The aerial punishment helped minimize resistance during the ground assault.

Should another war occur, the Marines from Orange County would probably be called upon to provide the same military might.

Among those placed on alert Monday, many said they were eager to get to Kuwait and finish a job that was started in January, 1991.

"If we go back there this time, we need to fix and take care of the situation for good," said Lance Cpl. Demarco Slaughter, 20, of East St. Louis, Ill., as he waited in line for his gear at Camp Pendleton.

Standing next to Slaughter, Lance Cpl. Anthony Gray, 22, of Houston, whose wife gave birth to a baby girl five days ago, agreed.

"It's a waste of money going back to do something that could have been taken care of four years ago," he said. "My wife doesn't want me to go with our new baby and all that, but my job requires me to go."

Both Marines signed out for desert gear, which included fatigues, boots, head-gear, flak jackets and chemical protective suits in the event of gas warfare.

Lt. Gen. Tony Zinni, commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, said the troops will continue to gear up for combat, despite Iraq's apparent military de-escalation around the Kuwaiti border.

"We are looking at this as a serious matter and are going to be prepared" for a long deployment, Zinni announced at a noon news conference at Camp Pendleton. "Having been through this experience once before, we have learned a lot. . . . Our experience level is better and we have equipment pre-positioned" in Saudi Arabia.

Military supply ships are en route to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Zinni said. Those ships will arrive "in a few weeks," he said. It will be the task of the 1st Expeditionary Force to unload the ships and set up camps and airfields, he said.

Despite the changing developments in the Middle East, many Marines spent Monday enjoying the hot Santa Ana conditions on the last day of their three-day weekend.

"Things are still pretty much routine at this point," said Hiersekorn, noting that Columbus Day is a federal holiday and that most Marines had the day off.

Lt. Brian Gobel said he and his buddies at Camp Pendleton were prepared for whatever the Marine Corps asks of them. "Basically, we're just ready if need be," he said.

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