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Anguished Wives of Enlisted Men Struggle to Cope

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The moment a wife has dreaded since the day she married a Marine has come.

The Marine Corps has a steel-cold bureaucratic word for it, deployment, while the troops, with frontier bravado, call it mounting out.

But, to the wives of Marines who have hurriedly left Camp Pendleton for the Middle East crisis, both terms mean only one thing: Their husbands have gone off to war.

Like their husbands, many wives are surviving the agonizing uncertainty by consoling each other and attempting to master fear. Other wives, afraid of separation and the specter of chemical warfare, want their husbands to leave the corps when this crisis has passed.

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Jennifer Johnson, married eight years to a Marine sergeant, said: “You don’t realize this when you marry the guys. You fall in love and don’t think of those things. I’m proud he’s serving his country. It doesn’t mean I’m not scared or worried.”

She’s more fortunate than some wives. She was born into a military family and knows about the heartache. The wrenching, abrupt departures. The things left undone and unsaid. And prayers all the time for a safe return and thrilling homecoming.

It’s hard on even the strongest military wives, like Johnson, largely because more than her own emotion is involved. “My daughter is 4. She cries. She doesn’t understand Daddy’s gone. He just got back from a six-month deployment,” she said.

Young wives, many of them teen-agers, are stunned by what’s happening.

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Lulled by the extraordinary progress toward peace in the last year--and used to their husbands serving in a peacetime military--the suddenness of armed conflict has shattered their world.

“When you join the military, you don’t necessarily think of wartime, but that it’s just another job,” said Zina Perelman, married to a sergeant for five years. “It’s not reality until it actually happens.”

This Marine mission constitutes the largest deployment of troops since the Vietnam War, which ended 15 years ago.

Often, Camp Pendleton’s troops go on deployment to Okinawa, leaving wives to deal with depression, loneliness, financial strains and the heavy responsibility of running a household alone.

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But the tense confrontation with Iraq is different. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s previous use of chemical warfare has given many Marine wives a harsher kind of worry.

The anxiety doesn’t gnaw only on the wives whose husbands have already shipped out. It is just as real for the women whose men are awaiting orders.

Marine wife Cheryl Bluhm said, “We know they are going to be guarding themselves all they can, but every wife is thinking about Vietnam, and, if the same thing is going to happen here--that they’ll come back home totally ruined because of exposure to chemicals.”

She was referring to the Vietnam veterans’ health problems thought to be related to widespread use of the defoliant commonly known as Agent Orange.

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One wife, who, like some others interviewed, did not want to be identified, is married to a master sergeant and 17-year veteran. She said: “This is the most fear I’ve ever felt, because it seems so global. The chemical warfare possibility is cause for a lot of the terror we’re feeling.

“Among the wives, I’m probably as crusty as they come because my husband has spent so much time overseas. He just came back a few months ago from being gone six months.

“My kids are 9 and 10, and they’re acting like nothing’s going on,” she said. “But that concerns me, because I think they just don’t know how to cope with it.”

The Marine Corps has not disclosed how many troops have been deployed or whether more may be sent.

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Also deeply hurting many wives is the fact not only that their husbands are gone, but that they left quickly, sometimes without a goodby embrace.

One young woman at an Oceanside laundry sadly told how she got a telephone call from her husband the night before he left. Her husband, a corporal, said that ‘ “something’s coming down, and I’ve got to go. I don’t think I can make it home.’ He said he couldn’t tell me nothing else right now,” she said.

She’s worried about her husband, who has never been away before, and seems a little ashamed to also be concerned about the couple’s old station wagon. It’s “sort of junk,” she said, noting that only her husband can keep it running.

As wives strive to regain some normalcy in their daily routines, they cling to the military grapevine for any information about the Middle East, where their men might be, and who might be sent out next.

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“We’re still in the dark,” said Sharon Champaign, whose husband, a corporal, was hurriedly getting ready to leave last week, but still hadn’t received orders.

She doesn’t want him to go, and, if he does, she faces the same emptiness of many other wives. She can stay here and be alone, or move back with her parents in South Carolina and disrupt her child’s schooling.

“I don’t have any family here, I’m all alone,” Champaign said.

The bitter experience of Vietnam has taught the Marine Corps to prepare a safety net for families of Marines.

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A vanguard of organizations, including the base’s Family Service Center, the Red Cross, Navy Relief Society and the Armed Services YMCA, are cooperating to serve military wives and children.

The emotional strains aside, many families of lower-ranking enlisted personnel suffer financially during separations. Military paychecks are sometimes lost or direct-deposited late. Worse, families lose the monthly food allowance when a Marine goes away.

Although the allowance is meant for the Marine and not the dependents, many families use part of the money to boost their food or rent budgets. The Navy Relief Society offers food, grants and no-interest loans to struggling families, but it’s not always enough.

Zina Perelman said that at first her husband was “definitely” going to leave, but last week, his status had become unclear.

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“If he were to leave, it would be devastating,” she said. “If he were to go, he’d lose his food allotment, nearly $200 a month.”

The Perelmans already receive food stamps, and she is worried that her husband’s departure would force her to drop out of school, where she is learning to become a paralegal, to look for work.

Despite the fretting over money, the greatest hardship is not knowing whether her husband is staying or shipping out.

“I think it’s the uncertainty whether he’s leaving that’s the biggest scare,” she said.

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When the Middle East trouble erupted, “I thought it was going to blow over, like Panama,” she said. But the military buildup and the rhetoric convince Perelman that the peril is genuine.

“This guy Hussein seems like he’s a real sicko. He doesn’t look like he’s going to back down. We may have a real struggle on our hands,” she said.

Usually, wives know little more than what they learn from the news media.

Wife Tina Walsh said: “We know just what we see on TV. Everybody’s got differing opinions whether it will escalate.”

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As if the world situation weren’t ominous enough, some young Marines have been alarmed by the military’s practice of encouraging them to prepare their wills and assign power of attorney to their wives.

Cathy Baird, program director for the Armed Forces YMCA, said leaving a will is a normal practice before a deployment, “but this situation has been so sudden, it’s all some of the guys can do to make sure they’ve got all their socks packed, and they’re not having time to deal with the long-range issues that come with any deployment.”

She’s seen stress like this before, during America’s bombing of Libya in 1986.

Now “it’s a very tense time. You can feel it when you go through the front gate on base; it’s thick,” she said.

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There has been sadness and worry for wives for as many centuries as soldiers have gone to war. But for Marines, who in earlier times were largely single, things have changed.

This year, throughout the Corps, 46.6% of the Marines are married, up 10% from 1980. At Camp Pendleton, about 16,000 Marines are married.

Baird said: “There are lots of (wives) out there who are 17 or 18 years old, with one or two children, who are miles away from their own parents and who need a support group. They’re confused about what’s going on and, by getting together as a group, they’ll at least realize they’re not alone.”

The ordeal has caused some wives to resent the Corps for the sacrifices of military life.

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That sentiment was expressed by a Marine’s wife who stood outside a Fallbrook convenience store and woefully explained how her husband had been hurriedly sent to Twentynine Palms, a base in San Bernardino County, as part of the Mideast deployment.

“I just wish he’d get out of the Marine Corps,” she said. “I’m going to tell him to get an honorable discharge.”

Champaign is feeling the strain, too.

“I don’t like the military, period. The parting. They go for months, a year. Whenever they say you have to be there, you have to go, and we’re left alone,” she said.

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Others get through the hard times and have no doubts about remaining a Marine Corps family.

Perelman said the only debate in her household is whether her sergeant husband will be a 20-year or a 30-year career man.


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