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AFTERMATH OF WAR : Oceanside to Roll Out Red, White, Blue Carpet : Homecoming: Families and merchants plan grand heroes’ welcome for about 30,000 Camp Pendleton Marines and reservists when they return from the Gulf War.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The giddy certainty of victory sank in Thursday, turning fears of death and loneliness into visions of parades for returning Marines, joyous family reunions and economic recovery for Oceanside.

A city that virtually went to war along with the roughly 30,000 Marines and reservists from neighboring Camp Pendleton, home of the 1st Marine Division, is preparing a welcome.

“We’re gearing up and are ready and willing to celebrate and welcome our friends back,” Mayor Larry Bagley said. “Oceanside hasn’t had an opportunity like that since the Korean War.”

Most Marines who served in Vietnam came back and simply resumed their lives, resentful of their ungreeted return from a sour war. This time will be different.

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For the military, Staff Sgt. Lee Crouch summed it up, saying: “Vietnam is past history. This is a powerful nation. We’ve proven the point there’s never going to be another Vietnam.”

Amid driving rain, this coastal town of 130,000 people seemed fresh with optimism and plans.

There were plans for romance.

Marine wife Diana Morgan, who banged pots and pans outside her Camp Pendleton home Wednesday night to celebrate President Bush’s announcement of a cease-fire, said she’s already decided how to greet her husband, Staff Sgt. Peter Morgan.

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“My parents will take the kids for the first night, and we’re then going to celebrate our wedding anniversary belatedly. I’ve already lined up a limousine, and we’re going to spend the night at a bed-and-breakfast inn in Carlsbad,” she said.

There were plans to sell cars and collect debts.

Many stores in Oceanside’s downtown business community have lost half their clientele since the Marines left. Merchants await returning Marines with a combination of patriotism and dollar signs in their eyes.

John Beauchamp, a salesman at Tropical Used Auto on Hill Street, said that for the Marines’ return he plans to spruce up his lot with smaller, sportier cars than the sedans that were prominent Thursday.

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He joked that, to attract Marines’ attention, he might even set up a mock burning oil well on the corner, near the street. Before the deployment, he sold nearly 30 cars a month, a figure that has dwindled to six.

“I anticipate sales will jump considerably once they’re back,” Beauchamp said. “Most of them have been over there long enough to save the better part of a down payment.”

Bagley, mayor of a deficit-ridden city, can’t help but feel that the Marines who saved Kuwait may now save Oceanside.

“It’s going to give (business) an economic shot in the arm,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt they’ll be in more of a spending mood.”

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Some businesses will try to catch up on unpaid bills.

Joe Torres, a ‘50s-era Marine who looks a bit like Telly Savalas, owns a furniture store that caters almost exclusively to Marine customers, some of whom haven’t been around lately to make their payments. Torres figures he’s owed $50,000.

“We’re a little gun-shy about going to the command (officers) to say that so-and-so is a little late on payments because they’ve been getting their butts shot at in Saudi while we’re over here asking them for money,” he said.

“Now I need to catch up. I’ll be knocking on their doors when they get back. And I hope they’ve been saving their money.”

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But Marine families weren’t thinking about debts Thursday. They were planning reunions.

Julia Nightingale, married to Marine Staff Sgt. Charles Nightingale, said: “I was in disbelief Wednesday night. I had to ask myself, ‘What did Bush just say?’ It took me a minute to figure out what he was saying, and then I was really happy.”

Nightingale, who lives on base, blames Saddam Hussein for not only separating her from her husband, but also from her 11-year-old daughter, the older of the couple’s two children.

“She was having a real hard time, handling the war and seeing the MPs at the gate with guns,” Nightingale said. “She was really scared. And, with all the kids’ dads gone, that’s all everyone was talking about, the war.”

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So, in January, Nightingale sent her daughter to her mother’s home in Hampstead, N.C. “She just had to get away from all this,” she said.

When her husband comes home, she won’t even have to send for her daughter. Charles Nightingale already has orders to report to Camp LeJeune in Jacksonville, not far from her mother’s home.

For other children who stayed, the end of war promises an end to loneliness.

In the Oceanside Unified School District there are 5,300 children of military families, many of whom have been depressed and withdrawn since their Marine fathers or mothers were deployed last August.

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“Today is the day that has changed,” said district spokesman Dan Armstrong. “Children are walking around with big smiles and going up to adults and saying, ‘My daddy’s coming home.’ ”

Some children have felt the added pressure of financial worry at home.

Armstrong said most families have gotten by on military pay and the wife’s employment, but a few families have sorely missed the extra income of a father’s part-time moonlighting.

“I don’t know anybody who has gone hungry,” said Armstrong, but some children “have come to school reflecting mom’s level of despair.”

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The major concern weighing this community now is when the Marines will return.

Maj. Nancy LaLuntas, a spokeswoman at Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, said, “The general rule will be, the first over will be the first ones out.”

But no departure date has been fixed for the 1st Marine Division, and LaLuntas added, “It’s a little premature . . . the war is over one day.”

Still, plans for celebration are already taking shape.

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“We’re looking at putting on the biggest welcome-home party on the West Coast,” said Pat Heath, marketing director for base morale, welfare and recreation.

She added, “We want to invite the Vietnam veterans. I feel it’s their party too, in a sense.”

(In San Diego, where the Navy has been a major presence for more than 60 years, Mayor Maureen O’Connor announced that a victory parade will march down Broadway at a date to be set later.)

Meanwhile, the California Highway Patrol, which sends Officer Jerry Bohrer from its Oceanside office to Okinawa twice a year to give Marines stationed there a refresher course on driving safety, is mapping out plans for Marines returning from the Persian Gulf.

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“They’ve been over there in the sand, where anything goes,” Bohrer said. “They haven’t necessarily been worried about driving on the right, or on the left, or in the middle--or even on the road at all.

“They may have acquired some very bad driving habits.”


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