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War Suddenly Becomes Real for Marine Families : Camp Pendleton: The base has sent thousands to the Gulf. Those left behind can only hope, pray, wait.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The toughest thing here Wednesday was that nobody knew much of anything. They only knew a war that in some ways had seemed an unreal adventure at once had become quite real, quite lethal and quite frightening.

Twelve Marines had been killed in combat, U.S. officials announced early in the day. Not announced was what base these dead Marines came from--who they were, and who they had left behind. Here at Camp Pendleton, which has sent thousands of Marines to the front, and in the Orange County communities where many of them live, the unanswered questions haunted everyone--wives and buddies, ministers and commanders.

And all they could do was speculate and hope, pray and wait. It hardly seemed enough.

“The fear has hit,” said Debbie Guddeck of Tustin, whose husband is with Camp Pendleton’s 1st Marine Division. “It’s now into the ground troops and it’s starting to get closer. With the air attacks, it had not hit home yet. But he (her husband) is near the Kuwaiti border.”

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Military officials said units from the 1st Marine Division were involved in the Tuesday night battle near the Saudi border town of Khafji, described by military officials as the fiercest ground encounter of the war.

But they could not say what units the dead Marines were from, and cautioned that the 1st Marine Division now includes units from bases other than Camp Pendleton. It was the uncertainty that left families and loved ones in anguish.

The last time Robin Locher heard from her fiance, Marine Cpl. Tony Latiolais, he was entering his fourth week of living in a foxhole with “his friend, Jack,” and walking the desert with his fellow scouts with the 1st Marine Division.

“They weren’t doing much of anything then,” Locher, of Mission Viejo, said Wednesday. “I wonder what he’s doing now.”

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Locher said her concern deepened after news spread of the casualties and battle at Khafji.

“It’s weird,” she said, “because there is nowhere to hide. Because he is a scout and a sniper, he is pretty much out in front.”

Joey Bailey, a laboratory technician at a medical office in Vista, went to work but spent her lunch hour driving alone and listening to news accounts of the fighting. “And I just started crying. My chest hurts,” she said.

Coralee Collins sought refuge by taking her two young children for a walk on the beach at Oceanside. She wore a Marine Corps sweat shirt emblazoned with the caricature of a bulldog.

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“There’s nothing more I can do,” she said. “My husband’s there. I just pray he comes home safe.”

Maribel Yawn, 21, stayed at home in the San Onofre base housing complex at Camp Pendleton. Her children were asleep in a back room, but she didn’t turn on the television.

“It upsets me, so I’ve stopped watching it,” she said. “There’s nothing the wives can do. Worrying won’t help. Some are crying and carrying on, but that’ll upset the kids. They’re all worried, but I’m not. I’m hoping and praying. That’s all I have--God. I’m putting all my faith in God.”

And so it went Wednesday at Camp Pendleton and in Oceanside and in the communities that share the pride of the 1st Marine Division. Many Marine families called the base’s family services center for information--and waited on hold and listened to classical music while anxious callers ahead of them were answered.

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Even the highest ranks of the Marine Corps couldn’t provide immediate answers.

“The casualties may be from this base; they may not be from this base. We simply don’t have the information,” was all Brig. Gen. Michael Neil, the base commander, could tell reporters at an afternoon press conference. “In the war footage of what these men were involved in, there was a lot going on. It’s going to take some time for this information to get out.”

In the meantime, speculate and hope, pray and wait.

“I don’t turn the news on, I don’t read the newspapers,” Guddeck said. “My way of coping with this is to just ignore it.”

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But there are things she cannot ignore, she said, like the day her 5-year-old son told her after watching a television newscast, “My daddy is dead.”

While not promising that he will return home, Guddeck said she reassured him that “right now,” his father is safe.

Carolyn Grubb of Laguna Niguel, whose husband commands a Marine unit near the Saudi/Kuwaiti border, said she was torn Wednesday between wanting to learn the latest news about the Khafji battle and not wanting to hear anything at all.

“I am not only worried for my husband, but we have so many friends there who are in up-close-and-personal positions, even closer than my husband,” Grubb said from Moulton Elementary School, where she is a computer instructor.

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“I just spent some time this weekend with a woman whose husband is with an artillery unit near the front. I think about him (her friend’s husband). There are so many people we care about who are over there.”

“The wives I’ve talked to are afraid,” added Bailey, 31. “They’re hurting. They know that the war is now real, that it’s no longer exaggerated. There’s a somber, morbid kind of fear.

“The reality has hit--and now that it has hit, it’s like they weren’t prepared for it,

Her husband is a 14-year Marine veteran with the 1st Marine Division who is deployed on the front lines; her father and two brothers are on Navy ships in the Persian Gulf.

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“I could lose half my family,” Bailey said. “It’s scary. You sit there and watch TV. But if you live every day scared to death, you can’t function. So you just say your prayers.”

Bailey recalled how on Tuesday night “about 16 of us were together . . . and the attitude was that everything was fine. We were happy and laughing. But now there are no more laughs. There are tears, heartache, pain.”

The father of a 21-year-old Camp Pendleton Marine characterized the anxiety, after first calling a newspaper office to ask if news reports had yet identified which Marine unit sustained the war’s first ground combat casualties.

“When I heard that 12 Marines got killed, I got that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach,” said the father, who asked not to be identified. “You hope it’s not your kid, and then you know it’s not your kid. You just know it.

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“But, you know it is somebody’s kid, and that there are 12 families out there who know it’s not their kid--but it is.”

The Rev. V. Blaine Franklin of Oceanside’s First Assembly of God Church reflected on the number of Marines he counts as his members.

“I began to think, is it one of my dads here, one of the dads in my church (who is a casualty)?”

Adding to the anxiety for some families was a rash of telephone calls received by military households--calls that their husbands or fathers had been hurt or killed in combat.

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“At our meeting the other night, there was a lot of talk about these calls,” said Joey Bailey. “Whoever is calling must think it’s a joke. We were told by the Marine Corps that this isn’t how we’ll be told. The military will show up in a military car, to our home. It won’t be by phone.”

The anxiety of combat wasn’t contained to just the families of troops already in the Persian Gulf.

Alarick Greek was walking around Oceanside on Wednesday in his Navy corpsman uniform, ready to be shipped out on Saturday.

“I’m a little more nervous now,” he said. “The ground war is gearing up. And I’m the guy who’s going to be right up there when the Marine yells, ‘Corpsman! My leg’s hit!’ ”

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Yes, it all seemed quite real.

Times staff writer Ray Tessler contributed to this report.


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