SAN DIEGO — For the second time in 13 months, Frances Whiteside is saying goodbye to her husband, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Allen Whiteside, who is off for an uncertain and dangerous future in Iraq.
"It's almost unreal," said Frances, 30, holding the couple's 3-year-old son, Cameron, as her husband and other Marines boarded a charter flight Thursday night.
"I know it's his job, but it seems like he just returned home to us yesterday and now he's gone again," she said quietly.
The Marine motto is "Semper Fidelis" -- always faithful -- and spouses often joke that their motto should be "Semper Gumby" -- always flexible. Some wives wear T-shirts that read: "Marine Wife: the Toughest Job in the Corps."
And now the ability of spouses and children to be flexible and to tough out a stressful and shifting situation will be sorely tested as 25,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton, Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, Twentynine Palms and Yuma, Ariz., go back to Iraq in the first large-scale return of U.S. military units.
Marine units are holding sessions to tell families of the help offered for stay-behind spouses.
"To say there's not stress out there would be a lie," Lt. Col. Tom Collins said at a pre-deployment family night at Camp Pendleton last week for the 1st Force Service Support Group. "The question is, how well can we manage the fear?"
Many of the spouses are only a few years out of high school; many have babies; many will return to their parents during the deployment.
"I try to stay positive, but sometimes I can't help but start crying," said Luisa Egleston, 18, married to Lance Cpl. Dexter Egleston, 19. "Sometimes I get so depressed thinking about Iraq. It's too frightening."
Linda Sumner, 29, wife of Cpl. Jason Sumner, 28, has a strategy: "This time I'm not watching any TV news. Last time we watched it 24-7, and it was very difficult. Not this time, no."
The political climate has changed since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year. Polls suggest fewer Americans support U.S. military policy in Iraq; that, too, adds to the stress on Marine families.
Anita Wirth, whose 23-year-old son, David, a corporal, is returning to Iraq, said she is upset when she hears politicians and others question the wisdom of sending the Marines to Iraq.
"I hate to hear that, I just hate it," Wirth said at the Camp Pendleton gathering. "I have to believe what he's doing is helping America. I believed that last time, I believe that this time. I have to believe that."
If the spouses have their fear under control, sometimes the children do not.
Tarria Harris, 31, married to Staff Sgt. Tijani Harris, 32, was startled when the couple's 5-year-old son, Tijani Jr., asked her a question.
"He asked me: 'Mommy, is Daddy going to get killed this time?' " Harris said. "It's very tough on the children. You just take things one day at a time. Never look ahead too far; it just increases the stress."
With women composing about 5% of the Marine Corps, some of the stay-behind spouses are men.
"It is difficult for a man," said Willie Knight, 37, a heavy equipment operator whose wife, Gunnery Sgt. Tracy Knight, 38, is going to Iraq. "A man is supposed to be able to protect his wife, but I know I can't when she's there."
Knight said he plans to stay "super busy" with the couple's 12-year-old son, Calvin. "I'll do what I can," he said, "and the rest is in God's hands."
The days are long gone when the Marine Corps attitude toward spouses was, "If the corps wanted you to have a wife, it would have issued you one." Like other military services, the Marines have instituted programs to support the emotional, financial and spiritual needs of families.
Still, the prospect of a return to a war zone has ratcheted up the tension.
The Marine Corps offers counseling, chaplains on call 24 hours a day, and a volunteer system under which older spouses -- usually wives of officers or senior enlisted personnel -- are ready to assist with the myriad problems that can occur. Brochures tell spouses to watch for signs of lethargy, depression, anger.
Coloring books are provided for children. "Deployment is only TEMPORARY," says one. "Your [parent] is not ABANDONING you."
For all of the help and support the corps can offer, spouses are also warned that they will need to be self-reliant.
"If you go into the hospital while your Marine is deployed, you need to have a plan to have your children cared for," Lt. Col. Collins' wife, Kara, told the Camp Pendleton group. "If you don't, they will be put in foster care within three hours."
In theory, none of this should be a shock. Spouses learn quickly that when they marry a Marine, they marry the Marine Corps; six-month deployments are routine.
"When you marry into the Marine Corps, you know that his job comes first and the family comes second," said Julie Rosen, 33, married to Master Sgt. Phillip Rosen, 37. "You just deal with it. You stay strong for him. You're both in the Marine Corps." Rosen and the other 1st Force Service Support Group troops will leave in coming weeks.
Whiteside and other members of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing left Thursday night from Miramar for the two-stop, 24-hour flight.
Whiteside, 30, was part of the combat force that fought its way to Baghdad last spring and toppled Saddam Hussein's government. His unit returned to California in late summer. Now he's part of a unit assigned to the volatile Sunni Triangle region for seven months or longer.
Frances Whiteside was asked if she thought civilian families could understand the challenges faced by military families.
"They haven't a clue," she said.