About 70 weekend warriors--bankers, teachers and other professionals--are training here, bracing themselves to celebrate Christmas in Bosnia with a combination of military pride and resigned acceptance.
After Redlands schoolteacher Bob Windver got the word to report for training, he spent the next few days compiling long-range lesson plans for a substitute teacher who will take over his fifth-grade class. He alerted his replacement to class parties, field trips and due dates for special projects.
“I got the call just after hanging up the phone, arranging a field trip to Knott’s Berry Farm,” he said. “My chest tightened up.”
Two hours after tire salesman Howard Abell of Washington state picked up the phone and was told to report to his unit, his wife learned she was pregnant with the couple’s first child.
“She was angry, sad, frustrated, crying, all of the above,” he said of his possible absence during her entire pregnancy.
Long Beach postman Robert Herrera had just returned home from taking his two boys to see the movie “Toy Story” when he listened to the message on the answering machine. His boys heard it too.
“They got scared. The little one asked if I was going to go kill bad guys. The older one stayed home from school the next day, crying,” he said.
Abell, Herrera and Windver were among the Army reservists who traveled Wednesday from the unit’s headquarters in Upland to the sprawling Marine Corps base near Oceanside for reserve training as members of the 15th Psychological Operations Company.
The reservists fully expect to join the NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
It is not official yet, and they might not learn for sure until late next week when their two-week training is completed. But these soldiers say the writing is on the wall.
Some said they were initially annoyed by the sudden call to duty. Some shrugged with resignation, and their families said they would postpone Christmas celebrations until their return. Some sounded excited.
If the reservists are called, their mission will be to accompany tactical troops in the war-ravaged region, to serve as public relations experts to smooth the road for NATO’s peace police. Through some of the reservists who can speak native languages, and with the help of translators, the soldiers in this group will answer questions, quell rumors and generally engender a sense of peace in a country that has seen too much war. They will use radio, television, loudspeakers, pamphlets and posters to explain NATO’s presence in the country.
“We want to win the hearts of the people through mass media military marketing,” said Capt. Mike Flavin, a reservist who is a financial analyst for Banque Paribas, a Century City entertainment financing firm.
Although they consider themselves PR experts trained in the fineries of marketing, psychology and sociology, they nonetheless need to hone their combat skills.
So in the wooded hills just above the site where, 20 years ago, Vietnamese refugees were relocated in a massive tent city, the reservists prepared for possible hostilities in another nation ripped by civil war.
They practiced their “immediate action drills"--what to do if they come under fire, their navigation techniques, even their driving skills on narrow mountainside roads.
If any American becomes a casualty in Bosnia, one reservist said, it more likely will be due to a vehicle crash on a snowy mountain road than because of a bullet.
But other possible casualties, some said, will be found back home--with the families, businesses and students they may be leaving behind.
“I feel like I’m being torn between two senses of duty,” said Reserve Sgt. Gary Broyles, who teaches sixth-grade math at Nightingale Middle School in Los Angeles. “The kids said they’d miss me and, you know, I feel like I’m cheating on them. Where does my real duty lie? I want to be able to see them through the sixth grade.”
Sgt. 1st Class Joe Palermino said he will have a job to return to--he’s a Pomona police officer. But he has all but given up his carpet and upholstery care business.
“I figure if I’m gone for nine months, I’ll have to start all over again when I come back. My customers will go somewhere else when they call me and get a disconnected line.” He laid off his 3 employees, paying each a week’s salary from his personal bank account.
But yes, he and the others acknowledged, this was the personal cost they knew they might pay when they became Army reservists.
“There’s actually a rush of excitement,” Broyles said. “You want to see if you can really do it when you’re called to. And we like to think that peacekeeping is up our alley.”
Maj. Tom Fernandez, the group’s commanding officer (and a San Diego police officer), said his charges are ready for duty. “We’re pumped. We’re ready to go,” he said. “We’re more ready to press on [to Bosnia] than to shut down at this time, because of the emotional high we’re on.”
But what about Christmas?
“There’s never a good time to be away from home,” he said. “And we’ve been away for Christmas before.”