It took no time at all for the reality of the war in Iraq to sink in. Once word of the attack was reported at 3:35 p.m., response was emotional and immediate in Ventura County.
“I’m sick to my stomach,” said Jackie Greenstein, 60, who was shopping at Buenaventura Mall in Ventura.
Terry Schmidt, a 22-year-old Simi Valley resident, said: “My initial reaction was, ‘Good, go to it, strut your stuff, show him what you’ve got.’ ”
“My heart’s in my throat. I’m sorry,” said 49-year-old Kirk Tracy of Ojai. “I’m supportive of what we’re doing over there. But at the same time, I’m terribly, terribly concerned. Because my son’s there. . . .”
Huddled quietly around radios and televisions or taking to the streets in protest, Ventura County residents--nearly all somber and reflective--turned their attention Wednesday to the war in Iraq.
At protests in Thousand Oaks, Ventura and Ojai, about 250 war protesters turned out. Two teen-agers were slightly injured by thrown objects, but no arrests were made.
Security was tightened at local military bases and at Oxnard Airport, officials said. At Point Mugu Pacific Missile Test Center, guards searched the automobile trunks of visitors.
Support for President Bush’s decision to attack seemed strong throughout the county. “That’s why we voted for him,” said Simi Valley resident Bob Simpson, a 72-year-old World War II veteran. “He’s our leader, and it’s his responsibility. It’s something we had to do sooner or later.”
Other residents who remembered the bloodshed of the Vietnam War said they are haunted by old images of body bags and the fear of an extended conflict.
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, God, here we are,”’ said Mike Vanoni, a Simi Valley mail carrier. “Now there is definitely no turning back. Now we’re there for who knows how long. That’s what’s scary.”
Others focused on the young men and women who have now begun a long-awaited fight in the desert and on the terrorist threat that may develop on American soil.
Richardo Herrera was staffing a video store on Garfield Avenue in Oxnard when he heard the news. “I’m nervous for terrorist attacks against us,” he said. “I’m worried about going to a mall or someplace where there are a lot of people.”
Few seemed untouched by it all.
Teachers struggled with how to explain a foreign war to their students, and parents dealt with the question of why their country would attack another.
Cheryl Hays, director of Noah’s Ark Pre-School in Ojai, said the 40 pre-schoolers were mostly unaware of the attack.
“We’ll be talking to them over the next few days and mostly reassuring the children that it doesn’t involve them where they are living,” Hays said.
At the Girls Club in Ventura, after a discussion about war with a dozen students, director Jessica Harris dropped her head in her hands when a parent called with word that shooting had started.
“Why did we have to set a deadline? Why?” Harris said. “I realize we’re dealing with a madman from our definition, but why did it have to come to this?”
Jeffrey C. Nelsen, principal at Lincoln Elementary School in Ventura, said students have been learning about the Middle East since September in an effort to allay student anxiety about the threat of war.
“I can’t count the number of times kids have come up to me today and asked, ‘Are we at war yet?’ ” Nelsen said before the shooting started.
In Camarillo, Deana Edge was watching her Girl Scout troop play in a park. She said she supported the president’s actions.
“I was a flight attendant during the Vietnam War, and I remember all those coffins being brought in the plane,” she said. “But I support President Bush because I never felt that the only issue was the price of oil. It’s much larger than that. Hussein wants to control everything all over the world, and he has to be stopped.”
The opinions of the children themselves seemed to divide along lines of age.
Isabel Arechiga, 7, a second-grade student from Ventura’s Lincoln Elementary School, said: “Think of the little kids who are going to get killed. A lot of people are going to die, and that’s really sad.”
But Pam Knutson, 12, a seventh-grade student at Ventura’s Cabrillo Middle School, said she favors war.
“I think we should fight,” Knutson said. “What is Saddam Hussein going to do next, take over some other country?”
Local military applauded the attack.
“I feel left out,” said one sailor who was listening to the news at the Enlisted Men’s Club at the Pacific Missile Test Center at Point Mugu. “All my friends are over there. . . . and I’m here twiddling my thumbs.”
Three Port Hueneme Seabees and three sailors from a ship docked in Long Beach solemnly watched President Bush on television at The Top Deck Inn on Pleasant Valley Road next to the Seabee base.
Richard Crossett, a sailor who was stationed in the Middle East in 1988, said: “It’s scary, but it’s exciting at the same time.”
Col. Daniel H. Pemberton, air commander of the 146th Tactical Airlift Wing for the California Air National Guard at Point Mugu, said he was relieved that the war had finally begun. Nearly 80 members of his unit have been dispatched to Saudi Arabia to transport injured soldiers from field hospitals to medical facilities in Germany.
“We’ve been preparing for this for a long time,” said Pemberton. “It’s like being a football player sitting on the bench. When the coach sends you into the game, it’s a relief.”
“What the peace protesters don’t realize is that we don’t want to get shot either,” Pemberton said. “This is our duty. It’s what we get paid to do.”
Within hours of the attack, hundreds of protesters were on the streets in Thousand Oaks, Ventura and Ojai.
In Thousand Oaks, about 100 anti-war demonstrators, mostly high school and college age, gathered at the intersection of Moorpark Road and Thousand Oaks Boulevard, where they played guitars and bongo drums, waved green peace-sign flags and displayed a sign reading “How Many Bodies Per Gallon?”
Across the street, about 12 teen-age boys staged a counter-demonstration, waving American flags and holding up signs saying “Bomb Saddam.”
“This war is keeping a madman from getting nuclear weapons,” said Mike Ciandella, 17, a student at Thousand Oaks High.
Bill Ferguson, 67, yelled at several nearby peace demonstrators as he pulled his Cadillac out of a corner gas station.
“I don’t think they know what’s going on,” said Ferguson, a Thousand Oaks real estate agent who served in the Navy during World War II. “They just memorize bumper stickers.”
Although most people in passing cars beeped in support of the war demonstrators, someone threw a handful of rocks and pebbles at one protester.
Todd Vernallis, 18, of Newbury Park was hit in the head but stayed at the rally. David Paolozzi, 19, of Simi Valley was hit in the ankle by an empty grenade.
A peace demonstration grew from five to 90 people in Ventura’s Plaza Park as an evening demonstration wore on.
Pat Ellison, a City Council member from 1974 to 1982, said she was horrified that the United States had launched an attack.
“War is obsolete. It’s barbaric,” she said.
Bob Chianese, one of the rally organizers, said a demonstration will be held every night at Plaza Park until the conflict is over “to show solidarity with other peace groups throughout the country.”
In Ojai, where more than 300 demonstrators had gathered the night before, only 60 showed up Wednesday evening.
“I think they got the spirit knocked out of them,” said Clive Leeman, 47, an English teacher at Moorpark College.
At Our Lady of the Assumption, a Roman Catholic church in midtown Ventura, about 60 parishioners knelt to recite a rosary for peace Wednesday night. “You’ve done more tonight for peace than you could have in any other way,” Harry J. Hicks, a Navy veteran of World War II, told the gathering at the conclusion of the rosary.
While most of the county was transfixed by the attack, life went on as usual in some places.
At San Buenaventura State Beach, joggers ran and children played on swings.
Jim Antolik, heading into the ocean in a wet suit with a surfboard under his arm, said he didn’t care that U.S. bombers were on the offensive and preferred to catch the waves while they were good.
“I don’t think anything that critical is going to happen,” he said. “And besides, it doesn’t really affect me.”
At Buenaventura Mall, a harried mother rushed three junior high school cheerleaders along.
“War started,” said the mother to a questioning stranger, and the girls nodded. “Air strike. Not hand-to-hand yet. C’mon, girls. We’ve got to get shoes.”
But business was slow at shopping centers and eateries as customers apparently stayed home to keep abreast of the war.
“It took a war to get an open table,” quipped a customer at Ferraro’s restaurant in Ventura.
Times staff writers Joanna M. Miller, Hugo Martin, Gary Gorman, Carlos V. Lozano, Christopher Reynolds and Psyche Pascual and correspondents Kirsten Lee Swartz, Thia Bell, Christopher Pummer, James E. Fowler and Maja Radevich contributed to this report.