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With Hugs and Some Tears, Marines Head for Fallouja

Camp Pendleton becomes the scene of solemn departures as Kilo Company departs for the Iraqi city that is a center of insurgency.

September 12, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — After a week of ominous casualty numbers from Iraq, family members and friends of the Marines of Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment gathered Saturday to say a tearful goodbye as the company left for Fallouja.

"It's too scary to think about," said Lyndale Coduto, 31, wife of Sgt. Gage Coduto. "Last night, it started to be real. Now there's no denial left; he's really going."

After more than a year of war, military families know there is service in Iraq, and then there's Fallouja.

On Monday, seven Marines were killed outside the combative city in the heart of the Sunni Triangle when their convoy was attacked. It was the most deadly attack on Americans since April.

Six of the seven were with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment, the battle-scarred battalion that Kilo Company and the rest of the infantry troops from the "three-five" are to replace.

On Tuesday, the U.S. fatality count for the Iraq war exceeded 1,000 -- including 234 Marines. All but a handful of the fatalities came from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Pendleton.

Denial is no longer an option. Most have known someone killed or wounded in Iraq. But family members believe training, leadership and prayer will bring their loved ones home safely.

"I don't watch the news because I want to keep having my hopes that he'll be back safe," said Karina Flores, 20, wife of Lance Cpl. Jose Flores, as she cuddled their daughter Shandell, 18 months.

The family of Cpl. Terrence Vandoorn wore their confidence on their T-shirts. His photo graced the front and back of the shirt, the back with the caption, "See You When You Return."

"Every day will be hard. There are so many negative things going on there," said Vandoorn's sister, Monita Jones, of Modesto. "Your life isn't the same when you have a family member in Iraq; it changes everything."

Some sobbing children had to be pried away from their fathers when the buses started their engines and sergeants barked out orders for Marines to get on board.

Gina Richardson, 22, wife of Cpl. Justin Richardson, has been planning what to tell their 3-year-old daughter, Heaven, who seemed unsure what it all meant.

"She worries when he goes to the store for a few hours," Richardson said. "I'm just going to tell her that Daddy has gone to Iraq to become a hero."

The military is its own subculture, a distinction never more acute than when forces head overseas. Even well-meaning civilians don't understand, said many of the Marine wives.

"They seem to pity you when they learn your husband is going to Iraq," said Tess Prato, 27, wife of Lt. Michael Prato. "They don't understand: My husband wants to be there. It's what he's trained for. He was built to be a Marine."

In Iraq, U.S. military officials have talked of resuming offensive ground operations against a stubborn insurgency in Fallouja. If so, it is likely Kilo Company will play a leading role.

Some family members already are envisioning the date seven months from now when Kilo Company will return.

"I'm here to see him leave, and I'll be here to pick him up when he comes home," said Linda Collins of San Juan Capistrano as her daughter, Billie, said goodbye to her husband, Lance Cpl. Adam Rodgers.

That date already arrived for several hundred members of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, which returned to a buoyant welcome at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in mid-San Diego hours earlier.

With a full-scale rotation of forces underway, contrasting scenes of solemn leave-taking and joyous homecoming occur daily in San Diego County, which has more active-duty military personnel than any other region in the country.

At Camp Pendleton, some of the several hundred Marines were almost jocular as they waited to board buses for the ride to March Reserve Air Force Base in Riverside and a flight to Iraq.

"Iraq?" said a corporal in mock surprise. "I thought we were going to Magic Mountain." A private first-class provided a decent imitation of the Austrian accent of a certain California governor. Another spoke in the growly tones of the Marines of his father's generation: "I was in 'Nam in '69, now that was real."

But amid the joking was the earnest business of getting prepared to enter a killing field. "Are the bayonets packed?" demanded a sergeant. "Get it done, Marines."

Many of the Marines served in last year's assault on Baghdad.

A few were part of another unit that was in Iraq only three months ago.

"There have been a lot of goodbyes this week," said Sarah Goodson, 22, wife of Cpl. Steven Goodson. "It's been tough."

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