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North Korea Drama Has O.C. Marines Talking

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wherever Marines gather, from the tattoo parlors and pool halls outside Camp Pendleton to the quietude of their homes near El Toro, the talk has been the same. And it points increasingly to one thing.

“Korea, man. Korea . . . “ Lance Cpl. Thomas Babbitt, 26, stationed at Camp Pendleton, said last week. “That’s all anyone is talking about.”

Farther up Interstate 5, the refrain has been the same at the El Toro Marine base, as Leathernecks and their families contemplate the prospect of being deployed to South Korea amid rising fears over North Korea’s suspected buildup of nuclear weapons, despite reports that talks are defusing the crisis.

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“Our superiors tell us to keep the news on CNN--just to give us a head’s up of what’s to come,” Babbitt said, spitting out a chaw of tobacco. “Then, when we finally do get to Korea, we won’t be completely in the dark.”

They come from Columbus, Ohio; Cicero, Ill.; Blanchardville, Wis.; San Antonio and East Los Angeles. And as Marines, all labor under the same assumption: that, any week now, despite former President Jimmy Carter’s claims of success in his diplomatic efforts, they could be ordered to get ready for deployment to Korea. Or, for that matter, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda. Or, even back to Somalia.

Escalating tensions in Haiti and North Korea have Marines and their families engaging far more frequently in what is rapidly becoming a daily preoccupation in the Corps.

“You find yourself watching CNN a lot more than usual and wondering what Korea is like,” said Babbitt, who like the commander in chief who might order him abroad, is a native of Arkansas.

Last week, Marines at Camp Pendleton, El Toro and Twentynine Palms all stated that their superiors have been telling them that troops stationed on the East Coast or Guantanomo Bay in Cuba would handle any action in Haiti--which military officials confirmed, adding that West Coast Marines would handle potential Korean duty.

“We pride ourselves on being in a state of readiness as part of our normal course of business,” said Col. Fred Peck, the Marine spokesman at Camp Pendleton. “But with Korea, we’re watching and listening and preparing ourselves to go.”

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Peck said the growing sense of unease over North Korea’s actions has the Marine high command “studying the common-sense military actions, which we can’t go into. But we’re pulling out all our plans and reviewing them.”

The First Marine Expeditionary Force from Pendleton, the Third Marine Aircraft Wing from El Toro and the First Marine Division from Twentynine Palms would be involved, should deployment in Korea become necessary, Peck said.

Lance Cpl. Raymond Dominguez, 22, a native of East Los Angeles stationed at Pendleton, said North Korea is the talk of the base and of downtown Oceanside, where Marines have been congregating since World War II. Those serving at El Toro said the same.

“It’s North Korea this, North Korea that,” Dominguez said. “Everyone hears about nuclear weapons. Everyone anticipates something breaking out. They tell us to have our stuff half-packed, ready to go.”

Fueling the anticipation is the memory of the last three years, Peck said. Camp Pendleton Marines have been involved in actions as diverse as the Persian Gulf War to helping quell the Los Angeles riots.

Plus, there’s the ever-present Cable News Network, “which has made the world seem so much smaller for us,” Peck said. “It’s always on, in all the command centers, the generals’ offices. It’s there as a constant reminder that there’s a dangerous world out there. We watch it and wonder if we’ll be called to any of those places.”

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It rattles the rank and file even more intensely.

“You find yourself watching the news and reading the paper voraciously every day,” said Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Ciconte, 35, a native of Delaware stationed at El Toro.

Karen Schumaker , 36, married to a Marine staff sergeant at El Toro, said her family’s existence revolves around scanning the headlines and, amid bites of breakfast, wondering which of almost a dozen world hot spots might affect them.

“As far as Korea goes,” she said, “it’s on my mind a lot.”

Kelli Jackson, 30, also married to an El Toro sergeant, finds herself dreading the prospect of another war.

“I’ve been through Lebanon (the Marine occupation in the 1980s) and the Gulf War, so I don’t want to go through any more wars,” she said.

Lance Cpl. Christopher Thompson, 20, a native of San Antonio stationed at El Toro, hopes to be anywhere but a foreign country when the Dallas Cowboys begin their new season on Labor Day weekend.

“But it doesn’t look good,” he said. “We’re hearing a lot about tensions in Korea, so that’s where I’d expect to go.”

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Capt. Jonathan Ingwell, 28, a native of Blanchardville, Wis., is watching more and more television news, “just trying to become familiar with what’s happening in Korea. We’re kind of always prepared for something, but usually, things escalate more sharply.”

Ingwell snapped his fingers.

“The Persian Gulf War came up like that. This is kind of a luxury,” he said. “At least with Korea, we’re getting a strong forewarning of what might be ahead.”

His wife, Carmen Ingwell, 24, said any deployment is hard on a Marine family, but the specter of war makes it far more disturbing. As a military plane roared overhead, the couple’s 21-month-old daughter, Devyn, cried out, “Daddy, Daddy!”--immediately connecting her father to fighter jets.

“She knows he could be in one,” her mother said.

Staff Sgt. David Bell, 36, of Cicero, Ill., is educating himself about North Korean President Kim Il Sung, whose lack of predictability could affect Bell.

“The only way to prepare for Korea is one step at a time,” said Bell, the father of an 11-year-old. “Most of our (Marine) leaders here watch CNN constantly. It gives you ideas, a frame of reference. It helps get you and your family used to the idea of being there, however painful it might be.”

Sitting on a corner in Oceanside, waiting for a bus, Lance Cpl. Darren Looman, 32, of Torrance, said his biggest fear is being sent overseas before his enlistment ends at the end of the month.

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“I’ve been to Korea before,” he said. “It’s cold, rainy, and the people didn’t seem to like us very much. You can have it. It ain’t for me.”

A few blocks away, Lance Cpl. Babbitt from Arkansas was planning to return to the Oceanside Armed Forces YMCA, where Marines like to gather. These days, the most popular pastime--even more than watching the National Basketball Assn. finals--is tuning in to the news.

“You learn to expect the worst,” Babbitt said with a sigh. “Most of us figure it’s only a matter of time. Watching the news doesn’t make it any easier--it just gives you a sense of where you’ll probably be. And while we’ll go and do our jobs well, it won’t be a place we’ll like.”

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