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A Family and GIs on Alert Sweat It Out

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Weary of network broadcasts filled with analyses of war, the Keeney family popped a videotape into the VCR Tuesday night to watch scenes from Saudi Arabia.

Although they had seen the tape at least half a dozen times before, the family still giggled now as they watched it. But the mood turned somber as their loved one, 20-year-old Daren Keeney, flashed a nervous smile and asked his parents for a favor:

“You guys keep me in your prayers,” young Keeney said, an M-16 assault rifle strapped to his back, “because the time is coming when we may see some action.”

At the 63rd Army Reserve Command Center in Los Alamitos, meanwhile, a troop of 30 reservist veterinarians and support staff ordered to report for duty on Tuesday began certifying their next of kin and wading through papers. But minds were elsewhere.

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“Everybody was looking at their watches--five hours from now, four hours from now,” recounted Los Angeles hospital counselor David Castillo, 38, a staff sergeant called up with the 109th Medical Detachment. “It makes you breathe hard. And you want to have a cold beer.”

As the United Nations deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal approached, Tuesday was a day of trepidation and prayers across the United States. But it hit home with personal Angst for members of the local and national military communities, torn between loyalties and fears.

Few expected the stroke of midnight--9 p.m. on the West Coast--to actually signal combat. But the mood at military bases at Los Alamitos, El Toro, Tustin, Seal Beach and elsewhere around Orange County was somber and expectant nonetheless. As Daren Keeney had warned, the time had come.

“Everyone’s walking around here real gingerly, just waiting to see what’s going to happen,” said Army Lt. Col. Stan Kensic, who was second in command of the training program at Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center before becoming its official spokesman late last year.

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“There’s a high anxiety here,” the colonel added.

The anxiety extended beyond mere moods.

With concerns voiced over the threat of terrorism in the United States, Orange County’s military installations were on heightened alert, with guards taking extra precautions to check those who entered.

And Marine officers have been training their staffs on how to deliver the tragic knock on the door to tell those on the other side that their son or daughter or spouse is dead.

“You have to prepare for the worst,” said Capt. Betsy Sweatt, an El Toro Marine Corps Air Station spokeswoman. “And none of us can ignore the fact that today is the 15th and we have to be ready for it.”

Like thousands of other American families, the Keeneys have been riding an emotional roller-coaster during America’s involvement in the Persian Gulf crisis. Their spirits have risen with every new negotiating session and fallen with news of repeated diplomatic failures.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s real,” Daren’s mother, Valerie, said. “I don’t think you can prepare. There is something about having a son there.”

Outside the Keeney home, a spotlight shined on an American flag, and yellow ribbons were tied to trees by the curb. During the evening, the Keeneys were joined by Daren’s uncle and his sixth-grade teacher. They all gathered to watch the U.N. deadline slip away.

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“I still have in the back of my mind that there is going to be a peaceful solution,” Valerie Keeney said. “Today, I found myself really nervous. I tend to put things off to the side, but today I was going in circles.”

Daren Keeney is a medic serving with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and had prepared himself to provide medical treatment in a training stint at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, his father said.

“I’m not sure anyone can really prepare you for” treating the wounded, Daren’s uncle, Doug Gish, said. “But I’m sure they will do the job.”

“We’ll do the job” was a common theme among the men and women of the 109th Medical Detachment at the Los Alamitos reserve center headquarters, the latest of more than 2,000 “weekend warriors” activated so far from this region in Southern California, Arizona and Nevada.

For the veterinary unit, the irony of its Jan. 15 start-up date was not lost.

The unit got its orders weeks ago, before the attention paid to the United Nations deadline had swelled to its current levels. Responsible for inspecting food and treating Army animals, the unit is to move out Thursday for mobilization in San Francisco. It has no further orders.

“You have to think about” the Jan. 15 date, said Spec. Horace McDuffie, a 23-year-old student and zoo worker from Los Angeles who will drive trucks in the unit. “Everybody’s been talking about it in such gloomy terms, it gets you down.”

For Sgt. Castillo, McDuffie’s fellow reservist in the 109th, the deadline, 9 p.m., came and went at his mother’s home in Cypress as he and his family sat glued to the television for news of war. None came.

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“I was kind of relieved. It’s a load off your shoulders,” he said. “But I think it’s only temporary, just gives us a little more time.”


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