For Many, Joy Is Muted as the Wait Continues

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Cindy Atkins stood quietly Saturday on Avenida del Mar here and watched what she had long hoped for: an all-American, red-white-and-blue welcome home for U.S. troops from the Persian Gulf War.

Fighting back the tears, she wished that her Marine husband was there to see it. And perhaps more important, she just wished that he would call from the battle zone, let her know that he's all right and that he's coming home.

"I'm jealous, that's the word. Let's be realistic," she said.

Except for a couple of letters Atkins received soon after Valentine's Day, she has not heard from her husband, Master Gunnery Sgt. David Atkins. And there has been no word since the ground war began.

The raucous sounds of car horns, live music and the cheers of the flag-waving crowd at the San Clemente rally seemed to disappear as Atkins escaped into her inner thoughts.

"It's a little hard for me," she said. "You know that feeling of being able to put your arms around the one you love."

Atkins, like many other local Marine wives, said she feels tugs at her heart as she watches homecoming scenes on TV news. Many spouses also wonder whether those who return in six months will be greeted by the sort of marching bands and the other pomp as these newly arrived troops are seeing.

"There's a big rally today in San Clemente," said Jeannie Baldwin, another Marine wife, "and if he comes home in June, is there still going to be a celebration?"

When Atkins left her home in Camp Pendleton to attend the rally, she noticed that reporters had arrived to cover the first Marines returning to base. Her husband would not be there.

"His birthday was Friday, and it was a little hard to get through that," she said.

Though the San Clemente rally was bittersweet, Atkins said, it was important for her to be there.

Months ago, she had gone to the San Clemente City Council, asking for permission to place yellow ribbons on trees along Avenida del Mar as a reminder to support the troops.

Her husband had fought in the Vietnam War and witnessed U.S. hostility toward that military effort. She was determined to make this homecoming worth remembering.

"I just hope they keep it up," she said of the revelers along the sidewalks and on the street. "They've got to keep it up."

Among those celebrating in the downtown street was another Marine wife, Rose Lopez, who might have been feeling the luck of the Irish as she awaited the expected St. Patrick's Day arrival of her husband, Sgt. John Lopez of the 1st Marine Division.

With a friend behind the wheel, Lopez was hanging out a car window and waving a large U.S. flag with red, white and blue balloons as they drove up and down Avenida del Mar, honking the horn.

"I'm going to pick him up, and then we are going to disappear into the sunset, and the rest is rated X," she said of the welcome she plans for her husband.

When Cpl. Anthony A. Hernandez returns to Tustin within the next couple of weeks, he will be greeted by a new daughter, who was born Wednesday.

"We're just waiting until he gets back before we name her," said Hernandez's wife, Jeanna.

But Lopez and Hernandez are among the lucky ones. Many spouses still do not even have a return date that they can circle on their calendars.

"It's hard to see everybody else coming home," said Baldwin, whose husband, Sgt. Walt Baldwin, was among the first deployed to the Persian Gulf last August. "We have some guys from Pendleton who left in January, and they're back already."

Nancy Ann Bailey shares Atkins' feelings about watching TV coverage of other families being reunited.

"I can't wait until I'm the one doing that," Bailey said.

Though some wives said it is difficult to plan a homecoming without knowing when to expect their husbands, Cheryl Gurule said she would like to hold a big barbecue for her husband, Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Gurule.

"I asked him if he wanted to get away when he came back, but he said, 'I just want to kick back in the house, be with my family, have a Coors and thank God that I'm back on my own turf.' But we have a big RV all packed up and ready to go if he changes his mind."

The mood was also upbeat at the home of Staff Sgt. Steven Everhart. His wife and their three children spent part of Saturday making welcome-home signs.

"So long as they come home, (when) doesn't make a difference, honestly," Vicki Everhart said.

"We've pulled together so close, we're all just so happy for each other," she said of the support that waiting spouses have given each other.

"I don't think there's much jealousy. We know ours are coming home soon too."

Times Staff Writer Eric Lichtblau contributed to this story.

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