Troops Check Out 'Hotel California' : Persian Gulf: West Coast Marines wait nervously in Kuwaiti desert camp as tension rises between U.S., Iraq.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lance Cpl. Steve Broadhead and the other Marines in A Company try not to think about the 120-degree heat and the blistering desert that surrounds them. And they've tried to ignore the seesaw war of words between Washington and Baghdad that again appears to be nudging the United States closer and closer to war in this land of sand, oil wells and mines.

Mostly, though, the 165 guys in the California-based Alpha Company of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit try hardest not to think about just where they are right now:

A remote Kuwaiti military training camp just 30 miles from the Iraqi border, where blown-out barracks buildings, shattered windows, burned-out tanks and even an army truck that was blasted onto the top of a concrete bunker more than a year ago serve as reminders of last year's Operation Desert Storm--and, for many here, auguries of this year's continuing confrontation between the United States and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Among the other souvenirs of the U.S.-led assault on Iraqi-held Kuwait last year are the graffiti, and one example is particularly fitting for these Marines. Welcome, as the neat, hand-painted sign above one bombed-out barracks doorway labeled this place, to "Hotel California: Check In. Never Leave."

Like the situation itself, it's a slogan that Alpha Company regards with mixed emotions.

"It's kinda scary, but you really don't think about it," said Broadhead, a native of Lompoc whose unit is based at Camp Pendleton and scheduled to spend just 15 days in the remote desert camp the U.S. military has officially designated Camp Monterey. "You get a little nervous, but you really can't do anything about it. . . . It's a big desert out there, and really, you can't tell that you're just 30 miles away.

"After all, we are just here for a training exercise."

Indeed, the mission that brought Alpha Company and 1,800 other U.S. Marines to Kuwait last week is the first of three joint-training exercises involving the U.S. and Kuwaiti armed forces. It is part of an agreement between President Bush and the Kuwaiti emir to help rebuild the emirate's devastated military and to create a constant deterrent against Iraqi aggression.

Dubbed Eager Mace, the Marine training exercises were planned last November and were scheduled to last two weeks, ending Aug. 19. But as tension escalated over the issue of weapons inspections, with a defiant Baghdad pitted against the increasingly frustrated U.S.-led coalition that drove Iraq's occupation forces from Kuwait, the Pentagon announced that it was moving up the date of a larger, U.S. Army war-game exercise called Intrinsic Action from late September to this month. And Defense Secretary Dick Cheney made clear that the change in timing was meant as a strong signal to Hussein.

But in the process, the precise mission of the U.S.-Kuwaiti exercises--the third is this week's set of naval maneuvers, code-named Native Fury--has become increasingly vague, both to the Kuwaitis and to the U.S. military personnel.

When asked just how long the Leathernecks will remain here, the Marine public affairs officer at Camp Monterey would say only that Aug. 19 was the scheduled departure date.

Officially, the U.S. company commanders have welcomed their new symbolic role. In the words of Alpha Company's commander, Marine Capt. Jim Dumont of Granite City, Ill., "the term we've always used for the Marines is, we're on the tip of the spear. So, if needed to be called in to do something, we'll be the first ones there."

Asked whether he and his men have thought about the possibility that their training mission might suddenly become all too real, Dumont said: "Marines always have thought about that, and obviously the situation here is a little bit different than normal. So they're very up for anything that might happen."

The Marines interviewed at Camp Monterey--many of them California natives who are at least as worried about their families' concern for their well-being as they are for their own--all agreed that they are ready to fight if their orders should change overnight.

But each one also stressed the wish that the war games--daily 3 a.m.-to-10 a.m. exercises in urban assaults and weapons training with the Kuwaitis--remain just games.

Typical of the sentiment was Cpl. Billy Nunez of San Jose, who, like most of the other men in Alpha Company, spent the entire Persian Gulf War at sea, aboard an amphibious vessel anchored off the coast of Kuwait.

"Oh, definitely," Nunez said, when asked whether he would have preferred fighting in the desert alongside the allied forces that liberated Kuwait. "I think everybody has a certain want, a certain need, to get out there. You train for so long--you don't want to just train for no reason."

Reminded that he was, at that moment, standing just 30 miles from an increasingly belligerent Iraq, though, the young Marine added: "Yeah, I know. I think I've always been ready for this. And if it happens, it happens.

"But if it doesn't, it's even better. . . . That way, there's no lives lost. I guess that's the worst thing--to lose my friends."

To cut the tension, most of the Marines have avoided news broadcasts on their small radios, instead focusing their off-duty attention on the Olympics. They're also concerned with coping with the blast-furnace desert winds and getting to know their Kuwaiti counterparts a bit better.

"How are the Dodgers doing?" asked Lance Cpl. Greg Foerstal, whose family is back in West Los Angeles. "Lousy, eh? They got the best players in the world, and they can't even win a ballgame."

"Hey, what's going on in the basketball?" interrupted Cpl. Pierre Knight of New York City. "I just wanna know how much they beat 'em by."

"But, oh, say, can I say hi to my wife?" Foerstal shouted to a visiting reporter. "Her name's Sandy, and we've got a 4-month-old baby girl named Jayde. Just say we're doing fine, I'm thinking about them all the time. We're staying safe. Everything's good. And not to worry. . . . Oh yeah, and I love them."

Cpl. Eddie Freeman, a member of A Company from West Covina, explained that most of the Marines feel that their present duty is far harder on their families than on them. Their unit has been at sea for the past 75 days, and the last time they could phone home was three weeks ago, when they were in Singapore.

"It's rougher on them," said Freeman, who has a wife and two children back in California. "We're here. At least we know what's going on. They just have to watch the news."

Deepening their concern is what most of the Marines sense as something of an isolationist sentiment in the United States that, they fear, would diminish their role if they should come in harm's way thousands of miles from home.

Perhaps it is that sense that was behind Alpha Company's somewhat-less-than-gung-ho mood outside Camp Monterey's pockmarked "Hotel California."

"Anybody who says he wants it to happen has got to have something mentally wrong with him," concluded Navy Corpsman Lamont Fletcher, a powerfully built Chicago native assigned to Alpha Company. "Look, everybody is willing to do what they've got to do. But really, everybody would really rather be at home."

And most of the Marines tried to be charitable about their present location, a military camp the Kuwaitis call Al Tahreer, or Liberation, that was ravaged first by the invading Iraqis and later by the U.S. troops who liberated it--the same forces responsible for its "Hotel California" nickname.

"It is good training--more of a live environment," Freeman said. "Back in California, at Camp Pendleton, there are so many regulations. With live fire, there are so many restrictions.

"This is more real life. An actual war has taken place here."

But as he paused and looked to the north, across the heat mirages and fire-hot sand that lay between his combat-ready company and Iraq, Freeman pushed back the thought of its becoming real again.

"Sure, it's occurred to everybody here. It's in the back of our minds. But we don't have any control over it. . . . If they tell us we've gotta go, we gotta go. So there's just no sense getting all worked up inside about it.

"Just be ready--that's all we can do."

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