CAMP PENDLETON — Marine Sgt. Pablo Hernandez bore bad news: He was shipping out within a month. But the punch of his words didn't hit until he said he was going to prepare a will. Then his wife, Jessica, wept.
"My heart stopped," she said.
After packing their rucksacks and checking their gear and stowing their night vision goggles, war fighters have one last thing to do before shipping out.
They have to decide who would get the mountain bike and who the boombox. They have to face a harsh possibility and come up with a distribution of their worldly goods that would leave their family with keepsakes and comfort if they don't return.
At California military bases, the number of Marines, soldiers, National Guardsmen and sailors who are making their wills has more than tripled in recent months as the United States braced for war with Iraq.
Here at Camp Pendleton, where 30,000 Marines have deployed, lawyers held classes explaining and completing wills, for as many as 100 at a time. In San Diego, where 19,000 sailors have shipped out, lawyers boarded vessels to draw up wills and powers-of-attorney. At Camp Roberts near Paso Robles, where 3,700 have been dispatched to posts at home and overseas, lawyers have made sure all National Guardsmen got a chance to make wills.
Preparing the wills forces men and women, many in their early 20s and ready to fight, to confront the unspeakable. It is a chore that underscores the gravity of their mission.
It means weighing lives, crystallizing emotions, evaluating relationships and asking: What will happen to my loved ones if I die?
It's not the sort of introspection expected of most twentysomethings.
Some become cavalier, joking that Uncle Sam doesn't pay enough for them to have acquired stuff anyone else would want. Others act as though a will is just one more form to be completed. Still others agonize.
"When I see a young Marine or sailor complete a will, I do feel they sense the importance of what they are facing," said Maj. Tom Sanzi, director of legal assistance at Camp Pendleton. "They're being forced to think, 'If I die, then what?' "
Sgt. Hernandez, for his part, decided all of his possessions -- the most valuable being an '84 Cutlass Sierra and a '92 Ford Escort -- would go to his wife.
He'd like her to give his 27-inch television and PlayStation to his younger brother. The money from his military life insurance would be split between his wife and his parents, who live in Victorville, where his father milks cows at a dairy.
Hernandez padded across the blue-gray carpet of the legal services classroom at Camp Pendleton and snagged a seat at one of two long wooden tables. He was lucky. Many Marines had to stand. Fluorescent lights buzzed, two fans whirled overhead and a Coke machine hummed.
Others brought their wives and babies, but Hernandez came alone. The last thing he wanted was to see Jessica crying.
Capt. Beth Harvey, an attorney, stood at the front. She explained that she would lead everyone through a standard, no-frills California statutory will, a six-page form. Anyone needing a more complicated, personalized document could make an appointment with the staff.
Harvey used the military phonetic alphabet to make sure everyone stayed apace. "Look at section Bravo," she called out. By the end of an hour, the Marines, who used one another as witnesses, walked out with their notarized wills in hand.
The finality of it, Hernandez would later say, was "a little weird."
When Jessica first met her husband, she admired his gentlemanly ways. He opened restaurant and car doors for her. She knew no one else who was as respectful. They could talk for hours, and it always seemed they had more to say.
After dating 1 1/2 years, Hernandez knelt before Jessica and asked her to become his wife. Four months later, they eloped and married before a justice of the peace. Jessica's father was a laborer in the fields of Calexico. He was very strict. He felt that his daughter should have finished college before she wed. But when both families learned of the marriage, they celebrated with a big church wedding.
Today, Pablo and Jessica Hernandez, both 22, live at Camp Pendleton. She works full time, earning $8 an hour as a cashier at the gas station just outside the base gates. She also attends Cal State San Marcos, majoring in psychology. Hernandez brings her flowers almost every day. When he goes to work, he leaves notes for her: "Good morning, Toots. Hope your day goes well. I love you."
When Hernandez learned of his deployment status, he came home and told Jessica, "I have to talk to you." She knew something was wrong. Pablo Hernandez would say later that they had a once-in-a-lifetime talk. "It's a conversation that sticks with you; it stays in your head," he said.
He did most of the talking.
"Hopefully, I will go and come back in one piece," he recalls saying.
But what if he didn't? He had survived two serious car crashes and felt as if God had already been very generous.