With their final goodbys exchanged, their early Christmas presents unwrapped and their prayers said, the largest batch of reserve troops yet called into active duty from Orange County left Los Alamitos at dawn Monday for a convoy into Operation Desert Shield.
More than 170 strong, the company began grouping at 4 a.m. at the 63rd Army Reserve Command center here and within four hours was on the San Gabriel River Freeway for the eight-hour journey to Ft. Ord in Northern California on four chartered buses and 50 military vehicles.
But that may be only the first stop for people who made their livings until a few days ago as longshoremen, salespeople, secretaries and postal workers. Eventually, company commanders and enlisted personnel expect that they will be fixing tanks and weaponry in Saudi Arabia, a prospect that left even the most veteran reservists nervous.
“This will be a very big change for all of us,” said Lt. Jeffrey Evans, a Lancaster computer analyst and platoon leader who was making plans to leave the reserves when he got his call-up notice last week. “I was hoping I wouldn’t get called up--just give me another month to get out.”
One reservist in the company won’t be making the trip. Lt. Evans said the unidentified man faces military prosecution for feigning a medical excuse to try to get out of the assignment.
And another reservist showed up Monday in his “civies"--out of uniform--because he hadn’t heard about the call-up until the last minute; his mother didn’t give him the message about the mobilization last week because she didn’t want him to go, military officials said.
The departure Monday of the 164th Company of the 63rd Army Reserve Command completed one of the largest single mobilizations in the Southland, including four other units totaling 900 people who left for assignments over the weekend under the Los Alamitos command. It also marked the biggest single reserve deployment from Orange County among nearly a thousand local “weekend warriors” called up.
But that mark seems likely to fall soon as the Pentagon continues to dig deeper into local reserve forces for medical personnel, maintenance people, transportation crews and other needs.
The timing of the call-up made it particularly difficult for some reservists, coming not just during the holiday season but also at a time when the political climate in Iraq had seemed to improve. That had left some reservists thinking--hoping--that their time might not come after all.
But the call did come. And for company members--many of whom said they signed up for the reserves for extra cash, or training, or a path to education, not to see combat--Monday was a day of realization. “This is D-Day,” one said cuttingly.
“There’s a lot of pain here today,” said Capt. Ole Olesen of Hawthorne, a battalion chaplain who saw off the company. “Some of them have to admit to themselves that they only saw this as a part-time job.”
Indeed, Spec. Charles Fonda of Garden Grove, a Vietnam veteran and air-conditioning technician with the Orange Unified School District, said that when he signed up with the reserves eight years ago, he never thought he might again see active duty.
“I already had my war,” Fonda said as he sat on a chartered bus, prepared to move out. “I figured there would never be another one--in my lifetime anyhow. Guess what? I figured that one wrong.”
Most said they spent the last few days getting their personal finances in order, preparing grim military paper work on matters such as next of kin and packing their things. But they also tried to find time for some quiet moments with their families, often having to break the news to young children left at home for at least six months--or as long as a year.
“All I told my kids was that there were some bad people and we had to go help get them out,” said Sgt. Leonard Model of Riverside, who has two children, ages 6 and 8.
When 38-year-old Sgt. Doris Sylvia of Anaheim found out she would be deployed, her two sisters in Massachusetts rushed out for an early Christmas celebration and send-off, talking an airline into giving them a reduced rate.
Sunday at the Sylvia home, the sisters cried as they listened to Stevie Wonder sing about peace at Christmas time, and they laughed as Sgt. Sylvia opened her presents from under a hastily decorated tree. There was hand lotion to help ward off the sun; a batch of her favorite canned peas, meant to break up the monotony of military food, and enough mystery novels to last through perhaps months of boredom.
“You just try to get a whole lifetime in a couple weeks and I think we’ve done a pretty good job,” said Debbie Sylvia of South Dartmouth, Mass., as she sent off her older sister with a sobbing embrace. “We just want her home soon.”