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Desert Town Anxiously Bids Its Marines Goodby : Military: Deployment of troops to Saudi Arabia has major repercussions for Twentynine Palms.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If and when America goes to war, few towns will feel it like this gritty blur of a place on California 62. Out here in the High Desert, tucked between heavenly expanses of Joshua Tree National Monument and a massive U.S. Marine Corps base that trains 50,000 fighting men each year, the town is as semper fi as they come.

The 932-square-mile Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms is, as the locals like to boast, “the world’s largest Marine base.” More than 10,000 Marines are stationed here on real estate that is three-fourths the size of Rhode Island, and though several bases have more personnel, perhaps nowhere else does the Corps so dominate a town. Add the population of the base to the city, and about 32,000 people live in this sprawling community about 150 miles east of Los Angeles, more than 20,000 of them active-duty military personnel and their dependents. Another 4,000, roughly, are said to be ex-Marines, Marine wives, Marine ex-wives or Marine brats.

Now, rather abruptly, thousands of crew-cut young men dressed in desert camouflage gear are being caravaned out by the busload, bound for the Middle East. Twentynine Palms, a bland scattering of low-slung shops, businesses and homes radiating from a four-way stop on the highway, is digging in for the duration.

“These aren’t just a bunch of guys in green. This is your next-door neighbor, your husband, your boyfriend,” said Karen VandenHout, Chamber of Commerce executive director and the daughter of a career Marine. “The rest of the country is watching this on TV like it’s some kind of show. We’re living this.”

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In town, the mobilization can be measured in many ways. There is the desperate, poignant rush of young couples to the Rev. Shirley Cowart’s quickie wedding chapel and the decimation of the city softball league, which suddenly lost five teams.

A Marine Corps lawyer tells the story of a Municipal Court judge who, faced with a sheaf of misdemeanor citations against half a dozen Marines, elected to commute the penalties from monetary fines to hours of public service. They will be doing their public service, the lawyer said, somewhere in Saudi Arabia.

Merchants are worried about the impact the Marines’ departure will have on the local economy, which is hardly in the best of times. Homes can be had for $60,000--one reason Marines often decide to stay--but many people must work two jobs to scratch out a living.

More than that, however, people say they are worried about whether loved ones, friends and even perfect strangers will come back home. A radio public-service announcement, compliments of the Chamber of Commerce, warns families to be wary of door-to-door salesman peddling life insurance.

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“You know the feeling you get when you see someone whose mother has died?” asked plumber and bartender Hank Garvin, a civilian who grew up among the children of Marines. “It’s sort of the same. You see these guys and just don’t know what to say to them.”

When President Bush announced plans to send troops to Saudi Arabia--the largest mobilization of U.S. forces since Vietnam--a shudder of excitement and anxiety swept the town. The Marines are the first to fight, and this, after all, is the Corps’ center for desert combat.

Even in normal times, Marines at Twentynine Palms employ every weapon from bayonets to jet fighters during major training exercises. The concussion of distant explosions has been known to crack windows and walls in homes closest to training grounds.

Some longtime residents say the decision to send troops to the Middle East is reminiscent of the mobilization after the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. VandenHout remembered herself, as a child, hugging her father goodby before he hastily took off for a war that was not to be.

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“The first week was very tense” this time, too, VandenHout said. “There were a lot of tears in town. Now things are starting to calm down a bit.”

At least one resident reacted with a deeper sense of history. Susan Luckie Reilly, 74, remembered how as a girl in the 1920s she would ride out from Pasadena to Twentynine Palms in her father’s air-cooled Franklin when “the road was just two ruts in the sand.”

Sometimes called “the father of Twentynine Palms,” Dr. James A. Luckie was a respiratory specialist whose patients included a group of World War I mustard gas victims. They needed dry, clean air for their damaged lungs, and after an exhaustive search for an ideal site, Luckie inspired the veterans to homestead the onetime stagecoach stop with its natural oasis.

By 1928, Twentynine Palms had its own American Legion post. Later, before the Marines took over, Army Gen. George Patton trained tank forces in the vicinity.

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When Reilly heard about Iraq’s propensity for chemical warfare, “I about cried. . . . Gosh, I hope we’re not going to have another load of those boys coming in here.”

The Marines, a notoriously confident bunch, try to discourage worrying. Their training, they point out, includes annual exercises in protective suits designed for poison gas attacks. Lt. Ron Sharp, who oversees media relations at the base, said although Marines express trepidation because “they don’t have a lot of details, I’ve never heard any Marine fear that they haven’t been trained properly.”

Whatever happens, “taking care of the home front” is again a popular phrase in Twentynine Palms. The Marine Corps has bulked up and accelerated its “Family Readiness” program to provide counseling support for families.

Even so, the level of secrecy shrouding operations has proved distressing for many relatives. For security reasons, Marines are under orders not to reveal precise schedules and destinations of their deployment.

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“My office gets five calls a day from crying wives, concerned mothers,” Sharp said. “We don’t turn them away because they’re all part of the family, the Marine Corps family. . . .

“We explain we’re protecting your husband or son by not telling you, because we’re really not sure that is your son.”

Not long after the orders to ship out came, Sharp’s office issued a directive advising Marines not to engage in speculation and spread hearsay. As for precise orders, it advised: “Don’t talk about it, period. Also, ask your dependents, if you’ve mentioned anything to them at all, not to jeopardize these lives by telling anyone else.”

Barbara Lee, a cook at the 29 Palms Inn and a mother of two, expects her master sergeant husband to depart any day. Lee figures she has an advantage over other Marine wives; she once was a Marine herself and believes in the caliber of the force.

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“You get the will taken care of, the power of attorney--and then you don’t worry. I mean, how would you get up in the morning? How would you live your life?” Lee asked.

“I just hope they’re bored and hot and come home.”

After years of preparation, many of the Marines are openly gung-ho, or, as some now say, “gungie"--about the prospect of combat. Others present a more businesslike attitude. If any are turning to jelly on the insides, they don’t show it.

“It’s a job, it’s a job,” Sgt. Edward Bunting said with shrug. “The President says, ‘Kill,’ we kill. The President says, ‘Jump,’ we say how high?”

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Bunting, dressed in a sport coat, slacks and tie, was “taking care of the family front.” He and his fiance, Diana, had come to the little Alpha Day Wedding Chapel to join in a parade of weddings that commenced with the first orders to mobilize. In all of June, Rev. Cowart had wed six couples. Over the last two weeks, she has performed more than 40 ceremonies--all of which has turned the chapel into a media event.

Bunting, 29, seemed amused to find himself the subject of a small press conference, facing reporters and photographers from two newspapers and a foreign news service. Cowart, a nondenominational minister ordained by a mail-order service, said it seems as if she has hosted every network, every local TV station and newspaper around.

The Buntings, who both have children from previous relationships and have a son together, were more mature than most of the couples Cowart has seen in recent days. The quickie weddings are performed under a California law that allows people over the age of 18 who have been living together to get married without blood tests. Alpha Day charges $150 for the ceremonies.

Most of the couples, Cowart said, are teen-agers or in their early 20s and have known each other only a few months. A few couples have arrived in formal attire--Marines in dress blues, their brides in wedding gowns--but more commonly the grooms have worn desert “cammies” and the brides have been in jeans. Under the circumstances, the usual wedding jitters are about doubled.

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“I try not to judge, but sometimes it’s very obvious they’re not mature enough to understand the magnitude of the commitment. They’re just love-struck,” Cowart said.

One young couple that arrived Thursday night nervously eyed the gantlet of media before meeting with Cowart. After a private ceremony, Cowart opened the doors and introduced the shy newlyweds, Steven and Laura Campbell. He is 21, she is 18, and their baby is due on Sept. 1.

“We kind of had to rush it,” said Steven Campbell, an infantry corporal who was to leave for Saudi Arabia the next day. They plan to have a formal church ceremony when he returns home, the couple said.

Campbell is a member of a Camp Pendleton unit that recently was deployed to Twentynine Palms, which has served as a staging area for Saudi-bound troops.

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Now he was patting his wife’s abdomen. Laura--biting her lip, holding back tears--said it felt “great” to be married, “great” to have a baby so near.

He told of their courtship, how they met 1 1/2 years ago on the Oceanside Pier. Although he had been with another girl that day, he somehow managed to set a date with Laura, the daughter of a retired Marine master sergeant.

Campbell has mixed feelings about going overseas. “In a way, I don’t (want to), because of her and the baby.”

But in another way, he’s excited. A Marine, he explained, is “what I always wanted to be. . . . I’m gungie, I guess. Hard-core.”

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Not all are so eager. A few blocks away, scores of Marines who had shed their cammies for civilian duds descended on a local hangout, The Max, for a night of dancing and drinking.

“If I go, I go. If I don’t, praise God,” said David Varney, a 21-year-old lance corporal from Georgia. “Anyone who’s halfway intelligent wouldn’t be too gung-ho.”

The best-case scenario, Varney figured, would be six months of camping in the Saudi desert. The worst case is that, plus “getting shot at.”

All considered, Varney said, he’d rather be in Twentynine Palms.

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