CAMP PENDLETON — In the beginning, the meeting might have passed for the kind of briefing that employees and spouses endure in the corporate world, with talk of insurance options, taxes and payroll deductions.
But then the session for Marines bound for Iraq and their families ventured onto a topic unique to this kind of employment.
The matter was introduced with a euphemism: "What if something happens over there?" No one had any doubt what that meant; this is the base that has had more personnel killed in Iraq than any other base in the nation.
The room fell silent.
Notification will not be made by the Red Cross, said Aurora Sanks, Red Cross coordinator for the base. Nor will you learn the bad news from television or the rumor mill, she promised.
"I can't stress this enough," said Sanks, a retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant. "Do not believe anything you hear or see unless you get it from someone in your husband's or wife's command."
In the audience, Chief Warrant Officer Tom Kircher and his wife, Heather, moved closer together. Soon he will leave for his third tour in Iraq. She leaned her head on his shoulder.
Heather Kircher, 28, knows the risks for Marines in Iraq. The Marine death total exceeds the corps' percentage of the overall U.S. force.
"It's always a possibility," she said during a break in the briefing. Her tone was flat, showing no fear, only acceptance.
Tom Kircher, 35, a specialist in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare, said the pre-deployment briefings for families were not so elaborate three years ago when the Marines led the assault to topple Saddam Hussein.
"The Marines have come a long way in doing a better job of getting information out there to the families," he said.
For two hours one night last week, several hundred Marines and spouses from Brigade Service Support Group 1 sat on folding chairs on an indoor basketball court to absorb information about pay and services available to the "stay-behinds." Unmarried Marines gathered information for their parents.
Similar sessions are being held for other battalions as 25,000 troops from the Camp Pendleton-based 1st Marine Expeditionary Force return to Iraq to relieve Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C. The job is one of the toughest in Iraq: to bring stability to violent Al Anbar province.
As the war stretches into its fourth year, there is a mantra that begins with the top generals: Combat readiness depends on family readiness.
Gone are the days of spouses being treated as unwanted baggage. "If the Marine Corps wanted you to have a wife," an old saw went, "it would have issued you one." Not now.
A chaplain announced his cellphone number, good 24 hours a day, and the number at his office on Ammunition Road. The group's top officer, who also doubles as "family readiness officer," gave out his number.
"We can help you with food, rent, co-pays" for medical visits, said Marjorie Gooch of the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. "There is always somebody there for those who are being left behind. We've seen it a million times: The Marine leaves, the wife goes on the interstate and something happens to the car. We can help."
The parade of speakers included Marines and several civilians who work for social service agencies on base. One message was paramount.
"Ready yourself for what's coming your way," Sanks said.
A variety of brochures and pamphlets were available, including the 82-page Deployment Information Package. There were comic books that told the stories of parents serving their country -- tools to help children understand why their father or mother is going away.
Marine Corps Community Services provided refrigerator magnets with a phone number and website and declaring: "From simple questions to complex issues, you can turn to us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week." Some of the telephone operators speak Spanish.
The mood inside Abby Reinke Community Center was informal but there was no mistaking the sense of seriousness. Cookies and chips were available on a back table, but most people seemed too focused, maybe too nervous, to partake.
"I'm scared and I want to know what I do about it," said Grace Andillon, cradling her 2-month-old son, Jadin. Andillon's husband, Sgt. Manuel Andillon, is making his first trip to Iraq.
Cpl. Miriam Flores, 21, is also making her first trip. Her husband, Cpl. Oscar Delacerda, 22, is already in Iraq for his third deployment. Their 2-year-old daughter, Searany, is being cared for by Flores' parents.
Miriam Flores had advice for the first-timers. "If you want to be a military wife, you have to learn patience," she said.
Much of the talk was about money. A Marine in Iraq receives extra pay ($250 a month for "family separation," and $225 for "hostile environment"). Spouses were warned not to go on buying binges.
That $2,000 flat-screen TV may seem like a nice antidote to loneliness, but it will dent your budget. Stay away from payday loan stores that line the streets of Oceanside; loans and paycheck advances are available on base.