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Back at Their Home Base

With a mile-long parade, a desert town honors Marines who served in the Iraq war.

October 19, 2003|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

TWENTYNINE PALMS — There is no shortage of bravado in this town. Not with the soaring display of patriotism and military firepower Saturday at the annual Pioneer Parade.

"These are the guys that pulled down the statue in Baghdad," proclaimed local radio host Gary Daigneault over a PA system, drawing cheers from the thousands of people lining Adobe Road, the city's main strip, to honor troops from the Twentynine Palms Marine base.

Daigneault was referring to the Marine's 1st Tank Battalion, represented by 14 hulking M1 Abrams tanks outfitted specially with rubber tracks for the parade to save the city from paying for road damage. Only months ago, the 68-ton mechanized Goliaths were securing Iraq's oil fields, holding a bridge and raiding the streets of Baghdad.

The tanks signaled the climactic end to a mile-long welcome-home parade that included low-flying Cobra attack helicopters, a lock-step Marine marching band, row after row of infantry and local firefighters, law enforcement, elected officials and schoolchildren.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Parade photo -- A military vehicle pictured on the cover of Sunday's California section was referred to incorrectly in the caption as a tank. The photo showed an armored vehicle.

But the psychological effect of the event could not be understated. In a city that relies so much on the comings and goings at the largest Marine base in the country, the celebration signaled that things were normal again -- at least for the time being.

Though the base's final unit serving in Iraq returned home two weeks ago, no one is assuming that the sons, fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters and wives in the Corps won't have to leave again.

"Do I feel safe and sound? Are you kidding?" asked Betty Bender, who lost her Marine husband to cancer a decade ago. "There's still a war. There's still people fighting and dying over there. I'm always going to feel fear. You never know what's around the corner."

The 56-year-old mother of one was selling "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers alongside the parade. It was a way to feel proud, she said, even though her heart breaks each day she reads that another American has been killed in the Middle East. Eleven Marines from the base in Twentynine Palms have died in Iraq.

Retired Marine Col. C.J. Horn held up a placard that simply read, "Thank You." As Marines from various battalions approached, he jumped out onto the street, whistling as loud as he could. The Marine motto -- "Semper fi" -- could be heard everywhere.

"They have to march and look straight ahead, so they can't see my sign," Horn said. An officer who appeared to be supervising the path of two helicopters above got a thumbs up from Horn, who told him, "Good job major, bring 'em back." After 30 years in the Marines, including time in Vietnam, Japan and Korea, the 68-year-old Horn said the people of Twentynine Palms are starting to acknowledge that the struggle over Iraq will not be a swift effort.

"It looks like the job is not going to be done for a while," he said.

But the last few weeks have provided something to be happy about, residents said. There are certain signs the troops are home: roads congested with traffic, auto shops abuzz, barbershops staying open later giving crew cuts, and restaurants feeding more people.

For Angela Fultz, it means having the father of her children to embrace again. Staff Sgt. Greggory Jenkins came back in September, nine months after being in the thick of combat. On Saturday, the Texan proudly wore his familiar cowboy hat and cheered on his fellow soldiers and 4-year-old daughter, Faith, who waved from her preschool's float. He said the Iraqi desert felt three times hotter than Twentynine Palms, where the temperature Saturday was 91 degrees.

"At least we have palm trees," Jenkins said.

"The first week he was gone, I didn't get any sleep," said Fultz, who received the fright of her life when she heard on the radio that a Gregory Jenkins had been killed in action. Someone at the radio station searched the news wires and found out that the man was an Army sergeant with a similar name. On this afternoon, Fultz's smile could not be contained.

"It was so eerie going on base before," she said. "It feels so good to see people and families and babies."

Dee Thompson agreed. She is the executive director of the city's Chamber of Commerce, which passed out 10,000 American flags and organized a carnival, rodeo and concert.

"Our family," she said, "is complete again."

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