Lance Cpl. Daniel Cullett is a quiet, rail-thin Marine with a shaved head, a pocketful of chewing tobacco and a dreadful sense of the future.
“I think everybody is a little apprehensive,” he said after setting foot in Saudia Arabia early today. “They say he (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein) is crazy, and he looks it. But this is what I signed up to do. That’s what I told my wife when we got married, and she supports me.”
Cullett, 22, was among a small contingent of El Toro Marines who arrived in the Middle East after a two-day flight from Southern California to an airfield just a short drive from the Kuwaiti border, where two armies have faced off for what could prove to be a bloody clash on a massive scale.
With the Jan. 15 deadline for Hussein to pull out of Kuwait less than a week off, and with the Iraqi leader showing no signs of giving in, Cullett cautiously stepped off the huge C-5A Galaxy transport plane into the cold Saudi night, wondering what the next week will bring.
“Nobody wants war,” said Cullett, who left behind his wife and infant daughter who live at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. “It could come to that, but nobody wants it.”
“Maybe some attitudes will change, and hopefully for the better,” said Lance Cpl. Jim Langdon, 21, of Mission Viejo. “There is a lot of uncertainty about what is going to happen and what they are going to do.”
Cullett, Langdon and five other members of Headquarters Squadron from El Toro were among 68 reservists and active duty personnel from across the country who set off from Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino on Sunday night to join the buildup of allied forces in Operation Desert Shield.
Their arrival in eastern Saudi Arabia aboard the 23-year-old C-5A, the workhorse of the Air Force’s Military Airlift Command, came as the U.S. military rushed to deploy, equip and support as many troops as possible before the Tuesday deadline.
By then, U.S officials hope to have 430,000 American troops stationed in the gulf region.
At the desert airfield in eastern Saudi Arabia, the buildup continued unabated through the night. Several C-5As landed within minutes of each other, their huge front and rear cargo doors opening to reveal tons of supplies and heavy equipment painted the now-familiar desert khaki and brown.
It is here that El Toro’s Headquarters Squadron will receive its orders: most likely a rear-guard position preparing rocket pods for the Marines’ F/A-18 Hornet jet fighters and Cobra helicopter gunships that will take to the air if negotiations fail and fighting breaks out.
The mission of the men, attached to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at El Toro, is to assemble the missiles and rockets that will later be fitted onto the jets and copters.
They join an estimated 35,000 other Marines from El Toro, Tustin and Camp Pendleton positioned along the front. The bulk of those troops, about 30,000, are based at Camp Pendleton as part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, desert warfare experts trained in Southern California. The 3rd Aircraft Wing, with its F/A-18 Hornets and fleet of cargo and troop-carrying helicopters from El Toro and Tustin, has contributed about 5,000 men and women to the expeditionary force.
For Marines like Cullett, the call-up for Persian Gulf duty has been bittersweet. He is anxious to serve, obedient to his chosen career as a warrior, but not too macho to deny that there is fear about what lies ahead.
There is the horrific specter of confronting the chemical and biological weapons that Hussein possesses, the harsh conditions of the desert and, above all, the unyielding uncertainty that a soldier lives with on the eve of battle.
And for Cullett, there are memories of home--and of a tiny daughter whom he hardly knows.
Talk about war and Cullett becomes somber, almost distant. But talk of Rachel Elizabeth Cullett, born Dec. 28 at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana, and the Marine in him turns proud father, his words soft and poignant.
“I must have 66 pictures of her with me,” he said. “I was there when she was born, next to my wife. I miss her already, but it’s strange because I feel like I hardly even know her. She was 8 days old when I left.”
Others, like Lance Cpl. Carlton Bailey, share in the soldier’s anxiety and spend their quiet moments remembering those they have left behind.
“I have a little one too, Carlton Bailey Jr., a big boy, 9 pounds, 3 ounces. He was born Nov. 19 and he’s already 14 pounds and chugging a bottle of milk like it’s nothing,” Bailey said.
And the Marine, who lives in a Portola Hills condominium near Trabuco Canyon, echoes the sentiments of others in praying for a quick, and final, solution to the crisis.
“Let’s just get it over with,” Bailey said. “Let’s do it and get out. Nobody wants to be here forever. Nobody wants this thing to drag out.”
Back in Orange County, Bailey’s wife, Nancy Ann, will return to work soon, he said, and the bond that has developed in the squadron of ordnance experts has extended to the home front as well.
Bailey’s newborn son, called Clay like his father, will be cared for during the day by Cullett’s wife, Elizabeth Ann.
“It’s a temporary arrangement we made because we’re all friends,” Bailey said. “All our wives are behind us. My wife knows I volunteered. But she knows I want to get home too. She knows I’ll come back, or fight like hell trying to.”