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‘Citizen Soldiers’ Answer Country’s Call : Gulf crisis: 14 reservists with aeromedical unit at Point Mugu who volunteered for active duty prepare for deployment to ‘somewhere east of here.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a classroom cluttered with duffel bags, sitting at tables covered with gas masks and rubber boots, 14 “citizen soldiers” prepared for war Wednesday.

The seven men and seven women--members of the 146th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at the Channel Islands Air National Guard Base--volunteered for duty when President Bush decided to activate more than 49,000 reservists.

On Wednesday morning, they got the call. Coming from as far as San Diego and Long Beach and as near as Chatsworth and Simi Valley, they rushed to the Ventura County base for six hours of briefings, films, paperwork and inoculations.

Today, they are expected to leave “for somewhere east of here,” a Guard spokesman said.

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The spokesman said he could not be more specific, but the preparations--including chemical warfare briefings and inoculations for hepatitis and meningitis--gave credence to unofficial reports that the team of nurses and medical technicians is headed for Saudi Arabia after a stop at an Air Force base on the East Coast.

“If I didn’t want to go to war, I would have chosen another unit,” said Tech. Sgt. Barbara Neff, a Los Angeles police officer who has been in the reserves for 6 1/2 years.

But the wife of an Oceanside reservist, who waited in a hallway for several hours while her husband was being briefed, admitted that she is scared.

“It was his decision to volunteer,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified. Sitting between her 13-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, she said she didn’t try to talk him out of it. “It wouldn’t have mattered.”

None of the reservists expressed surprise at being activated, even though it has been 22 years since reserves were called up for combat duty.

“We expected it,” said a member of the unit who lives in Granada Hills. “Medical units are first on the scene.”

The reservist, who did not want to be identified, said he just received a bachelor’s degree in politics from Cal State Northridge and was due to start an internship in Washington when Iraq invaded Kuwait. As a reservist, he had to put his plans on hold.

Although the medical evacuation squadron has its headquarters at the Channel Islands base at Point Mugu, its members come from all over Southern California. The only Ventura County resident among the 14 volunteers processed Wednesday was Steven Toberman of Simi Valley.

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“After seven years of training, I didn’t want to be left behind,” Toberman said, as he waited for inoculations at the base hospital.

After removing his shirt before an audience of television cameramen, still photographers and reporters, Toberman extended a tattooed right arm and took his shots without flinching. Then he joined the other reservists in an adjacent room where they waited to make sure none had allergic reactions.

Toberman and his wife are full-time Guard members. They met in the Guard, and both are based at Channel Islands.

“She’s pretty supportive” of his decision to volunteer, he said of his wife. “Like anyone, she doesn’t want to see her husband go.”

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The unit is well-prepared, he said. “It’s constant training,” he said. “We have lots of experience with gas masks.”

Preparing for chemical warfare was a big part of the mobilization process. “Get your gas masks out on the table,” a briefing leader said as soon as the group had assembled. Later, he told of the necessity to clean the mask before using it and showed how to change the filters.

Next came instruction in fastening rover boots--giant, one-size-fits-all rubber foot-coverings that are needed to seal out poison gas. The reservists also saw a video on how to spot and deal with unexploded bombs and rockets.

Most of the reservists were decked out in green flight suits. A few wore camouflage outfits. Each carried a bag of personal items, two canvas bags of chemical warfare gear and a sack containing a sleeping bag, food and other survival gear.

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The 14 volunteers expected to leave today are the second group of reservists who volunteered for active duty during the Persian Gulf crisis. Five aeromedical evacuation technicians were deployed Aug. 19.

The aeromedical evacuation squadron has 165 members, most of whom are part-time reservists who normally work one weekend a month and two weeks during the summer. Until last April, when the Channel Islands base opened, the squadron was based at the Van Nuys Airport.

Last Friday, the Air Force asked the Channel Islands base for 40 volunteers for active duty, but on Wednesday, the Pentagon said only 14 were needed immediately.


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