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BUILDUP IN THE PERSIAN GULF : Families of O.C. Marines Wait, Hope : Vigil: Those with loved ones overseas keep an anxious eye on military developments. News comes to them in bits and pieces.


IRVINE — They watch the news on television, read the newspapers and wait for letters or phone calls.

That's how Marine families with loved ones overseas keep track of the latest military developments in the Persian Gulf. News comes in dribs and drabs, through the media or base support groups, or the rumor mill on the bases.

Capt. Mike Gamble and Sgt. John Miles, both helicopter maintenance officers, are among the 350 Marines in a Tustin-based Marine squadron that was sent overseas in June, then abruptly ordered to the Gulf over the weekend.

To date, their families at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station have no word of what they found there, or even if they have arrived. Like most Americans, they only learned of the growing tensions in the Middle East from President Clinton in his televised speech last week.

"Listening to the President's address, that was the first indication I had that there was anything going on over there," said Vonnie Gamble, 40, Gamble's wife of more than 18 years and mother of their two sons, ages 16 and 13. "But we're used to this kind of lifestyle. You take things as they come, one day at a time."

Like many Marine families, they sometimes go for weeks without a call and must learn to communicate by mail.

"The last time I heard from John was Aug. 29," said Karen Miles, 26. "The phone rang at 6 a.m. and I knew it was him. Nobody else would call me at 6 in the morning."

Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 166, Gamble's and Miles' unit, has been overseas on the USS Tripoli in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean since June. The Marines call the six-month deployment--a regular assignment every 18 months--"a float."

Because the squadron is a combat-ready, it was natural to shift them to the Gulf over the weekend as part of this country's response to Iraq's troop buildup on the Kuwaiti border, said Sgt. Dave Hiersekorn, spokesman for the Tustin and El Toro Marine bases.

"They're a Marine expeditionary unit . . . a self-contained force," Hiersekorn said. "They can be somewhere on a very short notice."

Karen Miles said she knows her husband has been itching for such an assignment. A six-year Marine veteran, John Miles has spent most of his time on the East Coast and did not take part in the Gulf War.

"I think it's important that he finally gets to do what he has been trained for," said Miles, who remains at home on the El Toro base raising their two children, Danielle, 5, and John, 4.

Her children are too young to really understand the threat of war, but they know their father is away and are literally counting the days until his return, Karen Miles said.

"We have a big paper chain with links for every day in six months," she said. "We take one out every day he's gone."

Because Mike Gamble took part in operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, Vonnie Gamble has maintained vigils through other such deployments.

"This is not the first one by any means," she said. "You realize as time goes on things can change, they may have some diversion from their original schedule."

What Vonnie Gamble calls the "fear factor" is always part of her thinking.

"We are concerned, everyone is concerned. We are always thinking of their safety," she said.

She and Karen Miles are coordinators of a Marine wives' support group they call the "key volunteer network." They make videos to send to the Marines overseas.

"It is a wonderful support group, we are there for each other. Basically, it's how the wives, particularly the younger wives, keep going," Vonnie Gamble said. "For younger wives with young children, there is a tendency to feel there is no break. They are mom and dad 24 hours a day, seven days a week for six months. . . . We plan functions to get them out and involved with the other wives."

The support group is already planning their homecoming. But in the meantime, Vonnie Gamble will continue to write her husband four or five times a week.

"I think it's the highlight of their day when they finally get a mail drop," she said. "I know it's the highlight of our day when we get a letter."

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