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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA AND THE GULF CRISIS : Reservists Play Waiting Game : Members of a Los Alamitos maintenance unit practice with the tools of war, try to whip aging bodies into shape and agonizingly wait for orders to ship out.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chow has come and gone. Mail call is hours away. So the only thing to look forward to at the moment for this platoon of newly activated reservists is the latest bit of news--any news--about their future.

“OK, it’s time for the rumor of the day,” the staff sergeant tells his troops, assembled this mid-morning in front of the faded, World War II-era barracks that have been their home for the last three weeks.

“We’re going to Hawaii?” asks one soldier, hopefully. The wisecrack gets laughs from his fellow mechanics, but there is disappointment too, as the sergeant passes along the real update.

The only news today: A change in plans will force some juggling in training schedules.

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No, there’s no word yet on how long the 164th Heavy Maintenance Company out of Los Alamitos will be at this Army post in Northern California. No word on what its ultimate assignment will be. No word on where the troops’ families may soon be sending their mail.

Staff Sgt. John Seitz of Buena Park, a middle-aged electronics teacher nicknamed “Santa” by the troops of the 164th, sees it this way: “We’re like a horse that’s been trained and trained but doesn’t know when it’s supposed to run the race.”

Or even at what race track. The unwavering assumption among the maintenance company’s officers and enlisted personnel alike is that they will soon end up in Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Shield; some even carry store-bought manuals on survival techniques there. But officially, their destination remains unknown.

And so for the last three weeks, they have lived in limbo, these 170 men and women from Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties who make up this maintenance company.

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Like the roughly 900 other activated reservists from the West Coast who are now undergoing “mobilization training” at Ft. Ord, they wait and wonder.

Some fear the day their call will come. Others can’t wait. But all seem to share a wish to know what their future holds.

“Wherever we’re going to be, I’d just as soon be there now, " says Lt. Mike Lundgren, a 27-year-old mortgage broker from Burbank who commands the 164th. “I think everyone would. We’re ready right now.”

In the meantime, the days are filled with rifle-range practice, physical fitness training and chemical warfare classes, their nights with letters from home and Nintendo Gameboy sessions and chess tournaments. And always, there is the waiting.

“That’s the military way--hurry up and wait,” quips 32-year-old Thomas Sanchez, a military police reservist from San Mateo who is training with the 164th at Ft. Ord.

Some seem intent on finding bright spots wherever they can.

“Hey, this is the one place I know where you can get spaghetti and mashed potatoes at the same meal,” reasons 20-year-old Darlyn Davis of Hawthorne. “And if it fits between a couple slices of bread, you’re all set.”

Others find the military routine tedious and pointless.

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“Weapons cleaning? C’mon,” complains Pvt. Dean Kile, 20, of Trabuco Canyon. “All the weapons have already been cleaned.”

But nearly all agree that mobilization has been a time of frustration and tension.

“No one really believed until now that they’d be doing this,” says Sgt. Seitz, a veteran of three tours of duty with the Air Force in Vietnam and member of the company’s electronics shop. “Before this, they all played Army; now, they are Army.”

There are no jet pilots, front-line infantry “grunts” or other high-profile warriors in the 164th.

These are the motor-pool mechanics, the self-described “wrenchers” and “grease monkeys” who fix tanks, Land Rovers and jeeps from a base that could be a few dozen or a few hundred miles behind the front.

Still, most of their time at Ft. Ord is not spent on mechanics or radio electronics; that, their commanders say, they already know.

Instead, the time is devoted largely to warfare--readying for the prospect of a chemical attack, or using live ammunition on the rifle range with massive 50-caliber M2 machine guns that would defend the company’s perimeter.

The irony here is that these are skills that these men and women will probably never use.

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Lt. Michael Peeters of Burbank, a field artillery specialist and platoon leader in the 164th, would like to be in the thick of the action. “I want to be over there by the 15th (of January), when things kick off,” said Peeters, who is going to the Middle East “for God and country.”

But given his troops’ mechanical support role, he is confident that he and his troops will never have to test their rifle-range skills.

“If we ever have to use our weapons,” Peeters says, shaking his head as he watches an M2 send a tracer hurtling up to 7,200 meters into the Ft. Ord hills, “all hell’s breaking loose and we don’t want to be there.”

But Peeters doesn’t want his troops to let “their guard down.” So the training continues, though the results aren’t always pretty.

During the 164th’s last round of training last week, an M2 specialist spent the morning reviewing the gun’s workings and wasn’t altogether happy with what he saw.

Guns jammed mysteriously. Shooters, still a little overwhelmed by the power of the machinery, repeatedly let off their triggers too early, getting just one or two shots out of a gun meant to fire half a dozen at a time. And to the irritation of his instructor, one soldier pointed his weapon in the direction opposite of that ordered.

Like the weapons training, defense against chemical warfare is a skill that the reservists and their superiors hope they will never have to use. But again, they believe they must prepare for the worst.

Davis of Hawthorne jokes that she has “three best friends” at Ft. Ord: her gas mask, her M-16 weapon and Pvt. Cynthia Myers, a 21-year-old from Newport Beach who varnished boats for a living until last month.

Indeed, the thought of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein using chemical weapons is one that haunts all Saudi Arabia-bound troops.

Just ask Kenneth Wegner. A chemical weapons specialist in the 164th, the 35-year-old Cerritos man remembers asking superiors for more “NBC"--nuclear, biological and chemical--training in the time before the gulf crisis, but rarely getting it. These days, it is a priority, with classes and exercises scheduled almost daily.

But he is still not totally satisfied. “I think it was a mistake to let us go home (over Christmas); we should have been here training.”

If all see chemical training as a priority, not all agree on the methods.

A vivid illustration came last week as Wegner prepared to give a class on the use of the MT56, a plain-looking metal box that Wegner says “can pick up any nerve gas known to man.”

As Wegner readied his props, Chief Warrant Officer Jim Smith of Gardena, a veteran of stints in Korea, Vietnam and Lebanon, approached him with a good-natured challenge that grew gradually more serious.

Questioning the reliability of the gas detector and other textbook military teachings on chemical warfare, the 51-year-old Smith drew a lighter from his pocket.

This, he said, waving the lighter, is the only telltale way to detect certain gases because the flame will burn out--or not light at all--in their presence. That’s why he carries one with him at all times, Smith explained.

Wegner was unimpressed. But when he attempted to set Smith straight on more modern defenses, Smith countered, “You sound like 85 lieutenants in Vietnam I knew who got sent home in body bags.”

So, after a few more exchanges, the classic battle between the textbook teacher and the self-taught veteran ended in a standoff, with neither side yielding ground.

Smith walked off with his lighter. And Wegner taught his class just as planned, declaring later: “I’m coming home alive. . . . And I know that my people will not die from any chemical weapons.”

Sgt. Seitz, the man they call “Santa,” or sometimes “Dad,” is hopping on one foot on the Ft. Ord track in a move that resembles a cross between an Irish jig and Rocky’s famous run up the Philadelphia museum steps. This, for him, is warm-up time.

The occasion is the physical training test for the 164th. The Buena Park man--who gives his age only as “50-plus"--has passed the sit-up and push-up drills. Now comes the hard part: a 2-mile run that he must do in less than 23 minutes.

Seitz peels down to his brown Army T-shirt to reveal a healthy paunch that helped earn him his “Santa” nickname. As he prepares for a run that could help determine whether he is fit to go to the Middle East, Seitz calls out to no one in particular: “Over 50 years, over here.” The call draws no takers, only laughs.

There aren’t many others over 50 in this company, but young and old alike find the daily regimen of sit-ups, push-ups and running to be perhaps the toughest part of their new job.

“The Army figures the younger you are the more (calisthenics) you should be able to do,” said one 18-year-old from Orange County. “But I sure don’t know where they got that idea.”

“P.T.,” as the physical training is always called here, usually follows the 5 a.m. wake-up, although no one can be sure just how rigorous a day’s workout may prove.

“All depends on how the company commander is feeling,” says Staff Sgt. Jeff Harty, 31, of Lakewood. “We make him mad, we run 3 (miles); he’s easygoing, we run 2.”

Members of the 164th acknowledge they aren’t the fittest bunch in the world and probably wouldn’t fare well in Army intramurals against, say, the infantry grunts.

While several company members turned in 2-mile times in the 11-12 minute range, more failed to meet the cutoffs for their age ranges in last week’s test, which means they will have to improve their performance or face expulsion from the Army.

Many said they haven’t worked out as much as they should--at least not until they were activated.

But if physical training is the back-breaking part of the mobilization period, it is also a time of intense camaraderie.

Aside from mealtime, physical training is the time for the entire company to be together. And members seem to take advantage of the occasion to razz, prod and laud one another ceaselessly, all in the name of company spirit.

They offer advice and push one another rigorously--telling Sgt. Davis, for instance, to “just pretend you’re sitting up to (a drink) of 7 and 7"--even as they playfully deride one another’s athletic abilities.

“Go, go, go--kick it in!” one young runner implored repeatedly as he ran alongside a fellow soldier. Finally, stopping, the runner turned to her would-be coach and said simply, “Would you shut up already?”

The cheers and hand-slaps came with extra vigor for “Santa” Seitz last week as he finished his eight laps around the track--even ahead of several other company members and with a few minutes to spare. But he seemed too tired just to do more than nod at his congratulators.

His mind was elsewhere. “Let’s go eat,” he declared.


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