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'They Need the Best to Finish the Job'

Military: Neighbors of Camp Pendleton are proud and apprehensive that 'our boys' are leading ground assault.


OCEANSIDE — Residents here reacted with pride but also apprehension at the news that Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton are leading the first wave of a U.S. ground assault to catch or kill Osama bin Laden and the leaders of his alleged terrorist network.

"They needed the best to finish the job off, so they sent in our Marines," said Jose Hernandez, owner of Mary's Family Restaurant, which flies the U.S. and Marine Corps flags. "God bless our Marines from Camp Pendleton."

Jim Kathery, a computer programmer who was shopping downtown, said the Marines "will show Bin Laden and his henchmen what real fighting men look like, what Americans look like when they get mad."

But Laurie Witzel, wife of a retired Marine, is worried about casualties.

"The president just said on television that there will be casualties," Witzel said tearfully. "I'm just praying it's not our boys from Camp Pendleton, but you can't prevent that. Damn those terrorists for attacking us and starting this."

Marines from Camp Pendleton have nearly always played a major role in this nation's wars, from Guadalcanal in World War II to the liberation of Kuwait City during the Persian Gulf War.

"When America goes to war, Camp Pendleton goes to war," Kathery said.

Throughout downtown, where flags and patriotic posters abound, shoppers and sales clerks exchanged information and gossip, some from the media, some picked up from spouses of Marines.

"Everybody is just waiting and waiting, hoping that everybody is OK," said Jane Ester, a clerk at downtown store selling T-shirts and tourist souvenirs. "This war has gotten very personal around here."

In Afghanistan, helicopter-borne Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C., continued to land near the embattled city of Kandahar, formerly a Taliban stronghold.

The Marines' initial mission is to take control of a privately owned airport so that more Marines, heavy equipment and artillery can arrive by transport aircraft.

The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit is composed of 2,200 Marines and sailors who left San Diego in mid-August aboard three ships on an apparently routine deployment to the Western Pacific. But within hours of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Marines and sailors were recalled from a port visit in Australia and redirected to the Arabian Sea.

The troops are trained in "quick insertion" into hostile territory. The assault on Afghanistan was launched from helicopters aboard the amphibious ship Peleliu, which takes its name from a famous Marine battle of World War II.

Even as some Marines were under potential fire in Afghanistan, others were being recalled to active duty, proof that the Marine Corps is preparing for the war to last months, if not longer.

Three dozen Marine reservists were being processed Monday at Camp Pendleton for assignment to various Marine Corps bases, including infantry troops being sent to Okinawa, Japan. Those troops could be used as replacements for troops already in Afghanistan.

"It's what I do best: being a Marine," said Cpl. Shawn Kelly of Banning, explaining why he volunteered to return to active duty.

"Like everybody else, I want to do what I can, and this is what I have to offer," said Capt. Jason Wild of Phoenix.

Nearly 5,000 Marine reservists have volunteered to return to active duty, officials said.

Along with calling up certain units, the Marine Corps is also looking for valued skills such as intelligence gathering, security duty, infantry and administrative acumen to handle the mountain of paperwork caused by a rapid mobilization and deployment.

Among the infantry reservists being recalled was Cpl. Joseph Balson, who was writing a master's thesis in criminology at the University of Texas, Arlington, when he was ordered to report for what could be a year or more.

Balson said his thesis topic--chosen long before Sept. 11--concerned America's vulnerability to terrorism and whether state and local officials are adequately prepared. He said he has brought his notes and rough draft on his laptop computer and plans to continue writing during his off hours.

"Maybe I'll be up close when the Marines write the final chapter to Bin Laden," he said.

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