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Bush’s Words Spur Cautious Joy : Reaction: Troops could soon head home, but ‘I never did trust (Hussein),’ a Pendleton Marine major’s wife said.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a veterans hall in Anaheim, a dozen ex-Marines, some clutching beers and wearing American flag lapel pins, erupted in a sea of cheers. In Tustin, a Marine wife told her young sons that daddy may soon be coming home.

And at UC Irvine, a stranger in the rain ran by a lone student manning an anti-war “tent city” on campus and shouted the single line: “The firing has stopped!”

As President Bush told the nation Wednesday that peace may be at hand, Orange County met it with a mix of relief, amazement and wariness--relieved that the seven-month Gulf crisis appeared to have ended, amazed that it had claimed so few lives, but wary that it might prove too good to hold true.

But mostly, there was glee--gushing and unrestrained.

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“The President said not to feel euphoric--but it’s not hard to right now,” said Sgt. Steve Casponguay, 23, celebrating the announcement with other Marines at the non-commissioned officers staff club at Camp Pendleton. “We all feel a special connection with our brothers and sisters over there. This was a very intense moment for all of us.”

For the loved ones of some 35,000 Orange County-area Marines and military personnel stationed in the Gulf, the wait begins--to see whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will comply with U.S. conditions and bring a permanent cease-fire, and to hope that the troops will begin returning soon. That could be months or more away, officials say.

“There are so many men and so much equipment, it will take twice as long as it did to get there, maybe three times, to get everyone and everything back home,” a senior Pentagon official predicted. “That could mean 14 or 16 months for some, depending on what their jobs are.”

Maj. Gen. Theodore W. Paulson, who heads the Los Alamitos-based 63rd Army Reserve Command and saw 2,000 men and women from his command sent to the Gulf, said: “I’m sure the soldiers, sailors and Marines over there will be coming home just as soon as the situation allows. . . . But I’d assume you won’t have everybody come back instantaneously. I assume you’d have a phased return.”

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After watching Bush’s speech, the general said he was “extremely pleased with the President’s remarks and with the performance of the coalition. . . . Our community should be extremely proud of what their friends and family members have done in this operation.”

Bush’s announcement that “Kuwait is liberated” and that coalition military operations have been suspended left Debbie Guddeck and Elizabeth Hudson glued to the television in Guddeck’s Marine base home.

Their excitement, like that of many military families, was tempered by pragmatic caution.

“I don’t want to get too excited right now,” said Guddeck, the wife of a Marine major coordinating air support with the 1st Marine Division out of Camp Pendleton, “and then it all starts up again. . . . I never did trust (Hussein).”

But at times, the exuberance of the moment, the hope that they all want to cling to, found its way to the surface. Asked by his mother what he thought of the prospect of his dad coming home soon, 5-year-old Keith Guddeck exclaimed, “I think that would make me really happy.”

Military families around Orange County and civilians alike shared Guddeck’s restrained joy.

“It’s great, it’s positive news,” said 44-year-old Jim Grant of Coto de Caza, who watched the President’s speech with about half a dozen other people in the Broadway TV section at South Coast Plaza. “But it’s not over until Saddam is out of power and that should be a U.S. goal.”

But there were some who were disappointed that Bush did not signal a willingness to go further.

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“You don’t let them go when the man has already shown that he’s unreliable as far as his word goes,” said Steve Olson, 39, of Anaheim, a Vietnam veteran who watched the news in a boisterous veterans hall with other ex-Marines from Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3173 in Anaheim.

“What are (U.S. leaders) going to do? Let him go back with all of his arms and regroup and come back again in two years?” Olson asked. “At this point, we have them in a rout. That’s when you disarm them.”

But others, beleaguered by seven months of crisis, savored the prospect of peace.

William Shane, president of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, said after hearing the speech on his car radio that “I, like all Americans, am delighted that we have an end to the hostilities and that we have the start of a lasting peace.

“And hopefully also, this will lead to a broader goal, which is a lasting peace among all the nations of the region, which would be the dream of us all,” Shane added. “I hope that this represents an opportunity for Israel and its neighbors to work towards the type of peace that Israel thus far has only achieved with Egypt.”

George Dibs, spokesman for the Arab-American Republican Club of Orange County, said he was “thrilled that the fighting is going to come to an end, which means the end of deaths and injuries and destruction.”

Dibs added that he has been heartened to see that the Bush Administration has set in motion more long-range diplomatic goals that could help to meet the still more difficult challenge--"for winning the peace” in the tumultuous region.

At the anti-war tent city on the UCI campus, senior Scott Starr of San Juan Capistrano, manning the site in the rain, had mixed feelings on what appeared to be the successful conclusion to the war.

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“On the one hand, it’s sad and frustrating ending this the way we did because it’s only going to make President Bush look better. I think the whole thing was wrong to begin with. But on the other hand, this is great because so many lives will be saved.”

The only known combat casualties from the Orange County area were a group of nine or so Camp Pendleton Marines believed to have been killed by “friendly fire” in a ground confrontation with the Iraqis.

Among those who died in that altercation was Cpl. Stephen E. Bentzlin, 23, a Marine from Minnesota who was working in a reconnaissance unit when he was killed after an apparent ploy by the Iraqis to feign a retreat.

As his mother, Barbara Anderson, listened to the President’s speech in Minnesota, she took some satisfaction in seeing that the United States wasn’t rushing to accept Saddam’s word.

“I’m glad that we learned from (the battle in which her son died), and I’m glad our nation listened,” she said. “And I’m just glad that there aren’t any more (casualties). I hope there aren’t any more. . . .

“I wouldn’t want any other person to experience the loss that we have--it’s one of the tragedies of war, and it’s a difficult tragedy to live with. The less amount of pain for everyone, the better. I just hope it’s over.”

Times staff writers Henry Chu, George Frank, Carla Rivera and Tammerlin Drummond and correspondent Frank Messina contributed to this report.


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