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Reality Hits Home With Call-Up Order

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After scurrying to find child care, plant-waterers and pet-sitters, reservists hastily reorganized their lives and scrambled to duty Wednesday, the first day of their 90-day stint after being ordered to active duty by President Bush because of the Mideast crisis.

For most, who were given four days to forsake their normal daily routines, the change was as abrupt as it was traumatic.

“I never thought we would be called up, though you always have it in the back of your mind,” said Joan Olson, a Grossmont Hospital nurse at who left her husband and their 5- and 4-year-old children and drove north to Oakland, where she will work in a Navy hospital. “It’s the new age of reservists--we are married, we have children. But no words can express how a mother feels leaving her children.”

Molly Mullen, 28 and single, moved out of her apartment after she was called and put her belongings in storage. Mullen moved into the apartment only four weeks ago and finished unpacking the last of her boxes just days before she was called up.

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“What’s the point of paying $550 in monthly rent when I don’t know how long I will be gone?” said Mullen, a pediatric nurse at Children’s Hospital who has also been assigned to the Oakland hospital.

Across San Diego, more than 300 reservists--most of them medical specialists--heeded the call to duty and suddenly assumed full time military duties. Most will be able to live at home and work at the Navy Hospital in Balboa Park. But Olson, Mullen and 43 other nurses were dispatched to Oakland. A handful of others were scattered across the nation to other military facilities.

“It’s a major disruption to their lives, but they are taking it like champs,” said Capt. Fred Phrelkeld, commanding officer of the Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Readiness Center, the largest reserve center in the nation.

Reservists, most of whom were called early Saturday, were given until midnight Wednesday to report for duty. For them, being called to active duty posed a nightmarish tangle of tasks. For commanders at the Navy Hospital in Balboa Park, the prospect of getting 187 corpsmen, 30 doctors and 10 nurses meant easing the manpower pinch in the much-depleted staff.

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In recent weeks, the hospital has lost about 400 of its 4,500-member staff, many of whom were assigned to two hospital ships en route to the Mideast, Navy spokeswoman Pat Kelly said. The deployment of the hospital’s regular medical personnel forced a 50% cutback in inpatient surgical services and a 20% reduction in outpatient services.

“This means we can go back to business as usual,” Kelly said. “People who have been so great: rallied, worked longer hours and canceled their vacations. It means they will get some relief.”

But that relief will not be immediate. For the next few days, reservists summoned to the Navy Hospital must take care of such matters as obtaining parking passes, filling out forms and taking tours of the hospital. Orientation, usually a one-week process, will be crammed into a single day on Tuesday, Kelly said.

For Olson, Mullen and six others, however, their day was spent on the road. The eight women, all members of Navy Reserve Unit 519, met at in the parking lot of the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla. After pairing off in four cars they drive off caravan-style to Oakland.

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“When I received the call, I was in shock. My stomach went into a knot. We had done this scenario a million times, but when you actually get the call, it’s another story,” said Olson, who took her children to Phoenix to live with her sister because her husband, an active duty Navy officer, will be at sea for a training exercise.

Cmdr. Holly Dahlgrin, the commanding officer of Unit 519, agreed that she was as surprised as most of the reservists in her group. “I didn’t think it was going to happen. Peace is breaking out all over the place,” said Dahlgrin, a 43-year-old nurse at Grossmont Hospital who has been in the Navy Reserve for 10 years.

Others, however, like Jennifer Pruitt, are luckier. A 26-year-old single mother, Pruitt gets to stay at home while on active duty.

A mental health worker in civilian life, Pruitt is a corpsman in the reserves. She received a call at 1 a.m. Saturday telling her to report for duty seven hours later.

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Pruitt had one immediate thought: her 3-year-old daughter, Samantha. At first panic set in, because Pruitt didn’t know where she would be assigned.

“Child care. That’s my biggest worry,” she said.

Then her thoughts followed an ever-widening circle of anxiety as she tried to juggle the logistics of being called up with so little notice.

“Oh, God, I was nervous,” said Pruitt, a petty officer who has been in the reserves for five years. “This is very scary. People think about war, and they don’t really know what it’s all about. Think about being 26 and saying, ‘Gosh, is my will up to date? And have you made arrangements for your child in case you die?’ ”

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Pruitt worked her night shift until 7:30 a.m. Saturday at Hillcrest Manor Sanitarium, dashed to her National City home to grab her duffel bag and reported to duty. When she learned she was being assigned to the Navy Hospital in Balboa Park, she was relieved. Then she began to think about how abruptly her life would change.

Pruitt’s parents have offered to help watch Samantha. To them, their daughter’s assignment to the Navy Hospital seems lucky. Pruitt’s brother Fred is also a Navy corpsman, and he has been told he will be leaving this week for duty in the Persian Gulf.

“These are my babies. My children are 26 and 27 but they are still my babies,” said Alethea (Allie) Pruitt, who runs a hardware store with her husband, Fred, a National City councilman who served two tours in Vietnam. “I am really torn because I am a patriotic person or my kids wouldn’t be in the service. We wave the flag with best of them.”

Pruitt has been assigned to the naval hospital for 90 days. The waiting and uncertainty is over. She sleeps soundly now.

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“It makes me feel very proud that I can help out. There are lot of guys who are over there with their lives on the line--it’s up to reserves to help out where we can,” Pruitt said.

But slowly, she is beginning to understand what her new duties will mean. And, one by one, the hurdles seem to grow. For several years, Pruitt has worked and saved so she could attend school. In fact, the educational benefits were one reason she decided to join the Navy Reserve. This fall, for the first time, she planned to attend architecture school full time.

But, because she has been ordered to active duty, she realizes that she will have to postpone her dream.

“That part was disappointing, but we signed a contract, and we have an obligation. This comes first,” Pruitt said. “There are a lot of active duty people who thought they would be going to school, and they are in the Persian Gulf. At least we are still at home.”

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