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Marines headed to war zone say their goodbyes

For some families, it is business as usual. But for first-timers, it is an emotional experience.

September 03, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON -- For some of the children, it's the only life they've known: Dad -- or mom -- goes away frequently and the family waits and worries.

For others, it's a new and frightening experience.

And still others are too young to know what it means when the buses pull away, taking Marines to the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station for the flight to Iraq.

On Sunday, 135-plus Marines from Medium Helicopter Squadron 268, the Red Dragons, were on their way on a seven-month deployment to Taqaddum, the giant airfield in the middle of Anbar province. For 60% of the Marines, the deployment is their second, third or fourth to Iraq.

Many also have done normal six-month training "floats" in the Western Pacific. To be a Marine is to deploy overseas, and to be a Marine spouse or offspring is to spend months waiting for e-mails, looking at family pictures and fearing a knock on the door from a casualty-notification officer.

Chief Warrant Officer Lindon Baran, 40, is making his fourth deployment to Iraq (five if you include the Persian Gulf War). In all, he's made 10 deployments during 23 years in the Marine Corps.

"It's business as usual for her," he said as he hugged his daughter, Tiffany, 17.

"I still miss him," she said.

Melissa Gonzalez is at the other end of the spectrum. She was saying a last-minute goodbye to her husband, Lance Cpl. Angel Gonzalez, 22.

She is unsure how their 16-month-old son, Julian, will react to the separation. She is returning to San Antonio to be near the support of her family and in-laws.

"His only word is 'dadda,' and he waits for him every day to come home," she said. "I'm worried what will happen when daddy doesn't come home at night."

The emotional scene played out in the parking lot outside the helicopter maintenance facility will be duplicated many-fold at Camp Pendleton in coming months as 11,000 Marines are set to deploy to Iraq.

The Marine Corps has programs to prepare children and spouses for the stress of deployments, including coloring books for younger children and group discussions for older ones. Counselors, chaplains and support groups are at the ready.

Still, each family needs to learn self-reliance.

Shellie Dial was there to bid farewell to her husband, Master Gunnery Sgt. Billy Dial, 44. So were their six daughters and two sons-in-law. A tow-headed grandson was inconsolable.

Dial is making his fourth trip to Iraq. Saying goodbye to his family has become commonplace during his 26 years in the Marine Corps, eased only slightly by the recent innovation of e-mail and webcams.

"It's toughest on the kids," Shellie Dial said. "Dad misses graduations, confirmations, baptisms, school projects, sports. Mom becomes Dad. When they were younger, they'd get mad at Dad for leaving. Dad was a picture on the wall."

Maj. Gabe Valdez, 37, said his sons -- ages 6 and 4 -- have learned what it means when he takes his flak jacket out of the closet. When he does, they know he's leaving, again. They've also learned the hazards of his job.

"They didn't use to know, but they've figured it out: the vest is for stopping bullets," he said.

Lorraine Rios, 26, and her son, Jacob, 5, sat on the curb as the bus pulled away with her fiance, Lance Cpl. Evan Penn, 21, making his first deployment to Iraq. Mother and child began to cry.

How is she going to help Jacob cope? "I just don't know," Rios said in a trembling voice.

Madison Shelton, 5, buried her head in her mother's lap. Her father, Gunnery Sgt. Bryan Shelton, is making his third trip to Iraq. Madison's brother, Scott, 11, remained stoic, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses.

"There's no secret to it," Angie Shelton, 32, said as her husband's bus disappeared. "You just have to deal with it."

Sgt. Christina Johansen, 24, asked her husband, Sgt. Gordon Johansen, 25, to take their 2-year-old son Dylan home before the buses left. Both husband and wife are Iraq veterans; now she's returning.

Taking Dylan home, the parents agreed, would be easier for the boy.

"It'll be easier on me too," his mother said.

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