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WAR’S LEGACY : Persian Gulf conflict brought uncertainty as it changed lives and divided families. It also united O.C. residents, who joined to pay tribute to those who fought to free Kuwait.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Harold W. Blot, it was a glorious victory that brought the community together in patriotism once again after the painful divisions of Vietnam.

For Navy physician Dr. John Kelso of Orange, it was “a miserable experience . . . the camping trip from hell, having to sleep in the sand for six months.”

For Carol Bentzlin of San Juan Capistrano, it was a veiled battle over oil, one that ultimately claimed the life of her infantryman husband.

The New Year is traditionally a time to reflect on the events of the past 12 months. And for Blot, Kelso, Bentzlin and many others around Orange County, nothing struck so powerfully and emotionally as the Persian Gulf War and the battle to force Iraq’s Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

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To remember the Gulf conflict merely as the big story of the year is to underestimate its place in history, many say.

It produced months of waiting and wondering. It changed lives, divided families, and caused some to reassess life’s priorities. It sparked praise and protest and--ultimately--brought Orange County together for a spontaneous burst of relief and celebration over the lives not lost.

Even now, the emotions persist, said Robin Umberg of Garden Grove, a nurse and a major in the Army Reserve who was activated for seven months at a Colorado military hospital and who helped treat war casualties in the neurosurgery ward.

At reserve training a few weekends ago, Umberg said, she and fellow reservist nurses were overcome by emotion--and shed occasional tears--as they looked back on the war.

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“It’s just a very sentimental time for most of us,” said Umberg, who is the wife of Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove). “Thanksgiving, Christmas--there’s just such a contrast between the feelings now and the panic mode we were in last year.”

“There were a lot of repressed feelings” a year ago, she said. “You did what you had to do, and you knew it was for a good reason, but now you’re back in your life as a mother or whatever, and you feel the sadness of what you missed.”

Anthony Hernandez knows the feeling.

The Tustin-based Marine corporal, stationed several hundred miles behind the front line in Saudi Arabia in a communication squadron, said that even with the glare of bomb explosions in the distance and the threat of chemical assault, the toughest part of the war was being away from his family.

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Sure, there were a few gung-ho carolers last Christmas making the rounds in their military tent city. “Care” packages and holiday cards from home were plentiful. And one Marine even got a 3-foot Christmas tree.

But Hernandez’s two young daughters and his pregnant wife, Jeanna, were still thousands of miles away in Tustin, trying to make do after Jeanna Hernandez quit her waitressing job so that she could care for the children. Hernandez was on duty in the desert on Christmas, hoping the day would pass quickly.

“Times like that,” recalled Hernandez, 24, “you take a real hard look at what you had at home and you feel bad about what you abused--like time with your family . . . . And you wonder, ‘What happens if I don’t come home?’ ”

That was the chief question confronting the thousands of military personnel deployed from Orange County as part of Operation Desert Shield, later called Desert Storm as the fighting began in earnest.

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The role Orange County residents would play in the conflict became evident within days after Hussein invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990.

At the outset, the military refused to confirm the deployment of local troops. But the tanks, aircraft and troops exiting the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro told the story. In all, more than 7,000 Marines from the air bases at El Toro and Tustin went overseas and readied for war.

Thousands of infantry troops--Marine “grunts"--were also deployed from nearby Camp Pendleton. If the United States was to try an amphibious invasion to start the war, as many speculated that it would, these soldiers would help lead the charge--and suffer the inevitable casualties.

Such speculation, both at home and in the Gulf, was part of the painful months of waiting that preceded the start of the war.

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Morale was low before the war, recalled Spec. Gary Bodenweiser, 23, who was in the Gulf with a military police unit from the 1st Cavalry Division in Texas before he left the Army and returned home to Anaheim just before Christmas, 1990.

“It was rough, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “There were a lot of itchy trigger fingers, a lot of nervous people waiting to see what was going to happen. But I learned a lot--how important the little things are in life, like a porcelain toilet and sitting down and eating with a fork and knife.”

Even amid the patriotism of the prewar months, there were dissenters.

Hundreds gathered at the frequent rallies around the county to protest the military buildup. Students at UC Irvine erected a makeshift tent city as a symbol of their opposition. And several local Marines faced courts-martial rather than serve in the Gulf.

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“In my mind,” Cpl. Darrell Spencer, 23, a Tustin-based helicopter mechanic, said last month before being sentenced to a year in the brig for desertion, “going to Saudi Arabia would have been in direct contradiction to what I had taken an oath to do--to protect and defend the Constitution.”

Far more common, however, were the images of Orange County’s support for the troops.

Grade-school children and Scout groups wrote colorful cards and letters to “Any Soldier” overseas. Community groups mounted toy drives for children whose Christmases would be marred by having a parent overseas on the brink of war.

Small grocers and big chain stores alike donated food by the truckload to military families at El Toro and elsewhere in Orange County. Lawyers gave their time to help out military spouses left at home with bills, mortgage problems and other legal difficulties. And businesses kept U.S. flags flying high.

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“People were really leaning on each other for support,” said Kathy Collier of Buena Park, whose son was in the Gulf with the 82nd Airborne Division and who organized a support group for 140 military families.

“It was a time when the whole county just literally went hand-in-hand and heart-to-heart with each other,” she said. “It was like one big family.”

Kelso, 34, the Navy doctor from Orange who spent six months on the front line treating flu, diarrhea, and war casualties in a Marine brigade, said the support from the home front was “critical” to the success of the war.

“It was nice to get the letters and packages and all that,” he said, “not only for what was in them, but for showing that people at home were behind us, that the country was behind us.”

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Orange County military leaders and civilians involved in support programs all agreed that there was much more attention paid during Operation Desert Storm than in the past to the emotional and financial needs of the soldiers and of their families at home.

“Nobody worried too much about families before,” said J.K. Davis, a retired four-star Marine general who lives in San Clemente.

So it was that when the shooting finally started on Jan. 16, community groups and the El Toro base’s Family Service Center--which did not even exist during the Vietnam War--were ready.

“Death squads” of officers and chaplains were on duty, ready to give notice of casualties if need be. Base and community hot lines stayed open to deal with crises--emotional and otherwise--that accompanied the start of war.

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And around Orange County, all attention was focused on Baghdad. Residents served notice of their allegiance, singing the “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the start of “Madama Butterfly” at the Performing Arts Center hours after the bombing began, and standing for a moment of silence at basketball games.

They, with the rest of the nation, stayed glued to the television, watching CNN and other reports from around the globe for the latest update on who was bombing whom.

“I had both TVs going every minute,” said Barbara Bodenweiser of Anaheim, whose son Gary was in the Gulf. “What else could you do?”

That preoccupation with war, suggests Chapman University President and economist James L. Doti, helps explain the sharp drop in sales tax revenue in Orange County during the war and the lingering effect on the recession of today.

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Despite the Angst at home, the mass casualties and death notices that so many had feared never came.

“I was looking for the body bags, and I was so pleasantly surprised to see we didn’t even lose 200 people” in the U.S. military, said Irvine Councilman William A. (Art) Bloomer, a retired Marine general.

Instead, the allied war effort was quick and precise.

The Camp Pendleton-based brigade--long rumored to be a part of a possible amphibious landing--instead proved an effective decoy, holding tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers at bay along the sea. These troops later took part in several ground battles and helped liberate Kuwait as well.

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Tom Grant, a lecturer at UC Irvine and a researcher at the school’s Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies, said military strategists used a sound and cautious approach in refusing to put the infantry units “in harm’s way” at the war’s outset.

“It’s the old military saying: ‘If you can send a bullet, don’t send a man,’ ” Grant said.

The war began from the air--where the allies had the clearest advantage over Iraq--with state-of-the-art jet fighters flying dozens of sorties a day over strategic sites. F/A-18 pilots from El Toro and Tustin were among the first to drop their payloads and, later, to fly into Kuwait once the ground war started.

Orange County aviators returned from the war with phenomenal stories to tell--of crippled Hornets limping back to base with one engine blown, of pilots escaping from hit aircraft and managing to elude Iraqi captors, of bombers swooping down on enemy tanks and heading off attacks on U.S. ground troops.

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But for some, the adventure began even before reaching the Gulf.

“Getting to the war was a little more scary than actually going to war,” said Maj. Michael McBride, 35, of Mission Viejo, who manned weapons and sensor equipment from the back seat of an F/A-18 Hornet.

En route to the Gulf from the United States in January, in the middle of a midair refueling over the Atlantic, the hose on the Air Force KC-135 refueling plane broke, McBride said. Gas quickly flooded through the jet, blowing out an engine and setting the back third of the Hornet ablaze.

“The people outside the plane were just waiting for the canopy (the glass covering over the cockpit) to fly off and us to eject,” McBride said. But pilot Lt. Frank Richie managed to maneuver the plane to a safe landing in Maine on a single engine, flying at 9,000 feet instead of the normal 29,000.

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McBride and Richie were awarded medals for saving the $25-million plane--two among more than 4,000 honors given out through the El Toro Marine command for outstanding service during the war.

Despite the fact that so many from Orange County were involved in the war effort, only two Orange County servicemen are known to have died in fighting in the Gulf: Air Force Capt. Arthur Galvan, 33, of Costa Mesa, whose AC-130 Spectre gunship was shot down Jan. 31 during the battle of Khafji; and Cpl. Stephen E. Bentzlin of San Juan Capistrano, a Camp Pendleton-based Marine infantryman, also killed at Khafji, by so-called “friendly fire.”

For widow Carol Bentzlin, it was two casualties too many.

“It changed my life forever,” said the 29-year-old mother of three.

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Yet, despite the enormity of the war, Bentzlin fears that it may have slipped into history too quickly, without giving people--and she includes herself--time to answer key questions about what the war was really about.

“I think it was about oil,” she said. “I don’t think we should have had a war, and I need to find some sort of reason for this to have happened. I don’t want to go on believing my husband died in vain.”

Times staff writer George Frank contributed to this report.


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