Troop activity around Orange County's two military installations intensified Monday as thousands of Marines prepared to leave at a moment's notice to join the U.S.-led military operation in the Middle East.
Although military officials declined to specify exactly when troops would leave, a woman who declined to be identified said Monday that her husband, a Marine based in Tustin, was told that at least two squadrons from the Tustin Marine Corps Helicopter Station would be leaving Thursday for Saudi Arabia. The wife of another Tustin Marine said Monday that her husband has been sent to the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, where she said he is to be deployed by the end of the week.
Up to 5,000 Orange County-based Marines will be joining the stream of U.S. troops converging on the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Shield, a military source said Sunday. The source added Sunday that the Marines would begin leaving within the next 72 hours.
Military officials in Washington and in Southern California remained silent Monday about troop-movement details. They would confirm only that the Southern California troops being deployed include parts of the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade and the 1st Force Service Support Group in Twentynine Palms, the 1st Marine Division from Camp Pendleton, and the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing based at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The Tustin base is attached to the El Toro wing.
"They have begun movement to embarkation points for deployment," Marine Corps spokesman Randy Gaddo said Monday from Washington. "There is no time line for when they get there," that is, to Saudi Arabia.
The Southern California Marines will be embarking from Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino County and from the El Toro base, military sources said. Most of the cargo and troop-carrying helicopters from Tustin will be sent by ship, a military source said.
Defense Department spokesman Sam Grizzle said Monday that nationally, the deployments were being carried out smoothly.
"The deployment of forces is ahead of schedule," Grizzle said. "Everything is going just fine."
Although Lt. Gene Browne of the El Toro base would not comment on troop movements, a hint of the intensified activity came Monday in a press release he issued warning that there will be more noise around the base "intermittently 24 hours a day" until further notice.
"The extended airfield operating hours are necessary due to operational commitments," Browne said in the press release, but he did not elaborate on that.
In Orange County Monday, military personnel were getting their personal affairs in order and assuring worried relatives that everything would be all right.
"The only thing I'm worried about is I won't be around for the birth of my child," lamented one Tustin Marine corporal, whose wife's due date is Nov. 17.
Another Tustin Marine corporal, who would not say whether he is being deployed, conceded that none of the wives are happy about their husbands' leaving. "But they realize that this is part of the job," the Marine said as helicopter transports were roaring overhead in practice runs.
The Marine added that there is an air of tension at the Tustin and El Toro bases that is heightened by the fact that most of the soldiers there are young recruits.
"This is their first big international conflict, and they're a little scared and anxious," the Marine said.
Marine Corps Sgt. Larry Williams was dressed in full camouflage gear and heavy black boots as he emptied the trash and touched up his lawn Monday morning in the military housing complex behind the El Toro station. Williams, 29, lives there with his wife and two young daughters. He acknowledged that he was "on alert" but declined to discuss the details. He said he is prepared for the roller-coaster of emotions that comes with deployment.
"At first, you have a feeling you're ready to go. That's what I joined the Marine Corps for," Williams said. "And then when you get to the area--the theater of operation--you kind of have second thoughts. I guess that's when the fear comes into you, but you get over it."
Williams said he served as part of the U.S. peacekeeping mission deployed to Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983. On the Sunday morning that suicide terrorists bombed the Marine Corp barracks there, killing 260 men, he had been sent on temporary assignment elsewhere, he said.
He lost about 20 of the men in his company that day.
"I did lose a lot of my friends . . , but I guess it just wasn't my time to go," Williams said. He added that memories of the tragedy make him more eager to return. "It's almost like a vendetta for all my buddies. I feel it would be a chance to get back."
A few streets over, Linda Sexton, 34, was sitting on her porch in a quiet cul-de-sac of the El Toro neighborhood, still awaiting word on whether her husband will be going. Sexton's husband is a major in the Marines. She said she has been a military wife for 10 years, but that she has never experienced the sense of fear that now pervades her neighborhood.
Sexton noted that she, like most of her neighbors, is too young to remember much about the war in Vietnam, the last time U.S. troops were engaged in major, long-term combat. Other deployments such as the one to Grenada did not create the same sense of foreboding, she said.
"This is so much bigger. The whole world is getting involved," Sexton said. "This is the first time we're really feeling the fear that there's something our husbands may become involved in. We're all waiting to see who will be called next."
Meanwhile, families of Marines not summoned in the current deployment were counting their blessings.
"We're happy because we were scared they were going to call him," said the wife of a Marine helicopter mechanic who this past weekend discovered that he will be left behind.
Although the actual deployment is still reportedly days away, businesses dependent on local Marines were already feeling the effects Monday. At The Barn Restaurant and Saloon in Tustin, for example, manager/owner Cynthy Gravitt said her lunch business was suffering from a lack of Marine patrons.
"Normally, we have as many as 30 Marines here for lunch," Gravitt said, "but we just haven't had any in the last two weeks."
At Knowl-Wood Home of The World's Best Hamburger in Irvine, assistant manager Cindy Enriquez also reported a sharp drop in business from the nearby El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
"Today, we are very slow," Enriquez said Monday. "By 1 p.m., usually we have 1,600 customers, but today we had only 1,100. So I feel our business definitely has been affected."
Enriquez added that one of her waitresses had to take the day off Monday because her husband, a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, received orders to ship out within the next 24 hours.
"She's on her way home finding out what's going on," Enriquez said. "She's really upset. The rest of us are, too. In fact, that's all the talk around here right now."