Marine Town Braces for Exodus

Times Staff Writer

The last time the United States went to war against Iraq, thousands of troops abruptly left Twentynine Palms, which abuts the nation's largest U.S. Marine Corps base, and their wives scattered to hometowns across a nation retreating into recession.

Vacancy rates in the high desert hamlet skyrocketed to 60%. Sales tax revenue and property values plummeted. By the time the shooting started in late January 1991, 23 businesses had closed in the town tucked between Joshua Tree National Park and the arid and cactus-pocked base that trains 50,000 Marines each year.

Now, with base Marines on alert for deployment to the Middle East for another confrontation with Saddam Hussein, and Gov. Gray Davis proposing a 30% reduction in state funding for local services over the next year and a half as he struggles to plug a $34.8-billion budget gap, the leatherneck community 150 miles east of Los Angeles is bracing for what are likely to be tough times.

Bar owner Nicole Pulliam already has reduced her weekly beer orders by half. William Helko has decided to close the little cafe he bought a year ago at the bowling alley. Restaurant owner Dan Spicer has cut back on advertising. Twentynine Palms City Manager Michael Swigart has ordered a freeze on spending in the city, which has a modest annual budget of $4.4 million.

"If the deployment is lengthy, and the governor's budget passes, we'll be very badly injured," Swigart said. "We're not Oceanside [near the Marine base at Camp Pendleton], which has a large enough economy to absorb the impact of deployment. And we're not San Diego, where people are screaming for rental property."

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Ready to Sacrifice

"We are the Marines, and the Marines are us; sacrifice is the nature of our city," he added. "But right now, Gov. Davis is a bigger threat to Twentynine Palms than Saddam Hussein."

The worry, fear and confusion permeating this land of fast-food stands, brick and stucco homes, artist colonies, barber shops, beer bars and tattoo parlors along California 62 is more than a matter of money. The real blow is the impact of the departure of troops on routines of daily life in the town of 28,000 people, more than 20,000 of them active duty military personnel and their dependents.

As many as 200 troops were scheduled to leave town as early as today.

Leaving loved ones behind is a wrenching part of the job for Marines. But this time out, the base and local community leaders are devising ways to make the deployments less difficult, and to persuade as many families as possible to remain in the area for their well-being and the city's financial health.

Under the banner "Operation Enduring Families," base and community business leaders are teaming to teach Marine wives fundamentals of auto maintenance, such as how to perform an oil change. The base automotive shop is offering free towing from anywhere in town. Families are eligible for free help in filing taxes, and free shipping for packages 10 pounds and under to relatives sent overseas.

"We're reaching out to families even before they are in need of our assistance," base spokesman Capt. Rob Crum said. "It's good for morale, and it's good for the community."

Hotel clerk Amanda Wood, 24, already has decided to tough it out in town.

While she waits for her husband to ship out, Wood tends to her two small children and volunteers as much time as possible compiling a list of emergency telephone numbers and social programs for other young military wives.

Keeping busy helps her maintain a brave face in an isolated community where locals like to josh: "If you want stability, move to Los Angeles."

"I'm scared -- worried it's going to be hard, almost unbearable," Wood said. "But I'm proud of what my husband does, and I'm not about to let him or my children see me get emotional. I have to be strong for my family. When I just have to, I cry alone."

Over at the Bowladium Family Fun Center, Donna Coolbeth, 33, fretted that military officials seemed determined to order her husband off to war, even though he is on a medical hold. A decade ago, she recalled, "I lost a baby in premature labor two weeks after he was sent to Kuwait."

Moments after rolling a confident strike on bowling lane 11, she said, "Right now, I know two women in a similar situation. One is pregnant with twins. The other is in a hospital where doctors are trying to stall a stress-related premature delivery of twins."

The community's military heritage dates to the 1920s, when a Pasadena doctor persuaded a group of World War I mustard gas survivors that the clean, arid desert air was the ideal salve for their damaged lungs. Today, American commanders count on the 935-square-mile base to prepare men and women for desert combat conditions with full-scale live ammunition exercises.

Serving military families in this community poses unique challenges for business owners when there's a mass exodus of troops.

Amid an atmosphere of palpable apprehension and swirling rumors, Superior Automotive shop owner Gregory M. Mendoza has come up with a survival strategy for Marine families -- and his livelihood. Over the next four months, he will check and adjust fluid levels and inspect tires free of charge.

Leaning back in a chair in his small office, the former Army military police officer who grew up in Twentynine Palms said, "It's going to be tough, but this is a tough town. We're hunkering down and doing whatever we can to keep our automobile count up. There's not much more we can do."

Dee Thompson, executive director of the Twentynine Palms Chamber of Commerce, figures Mendoza has the right idea. "If Marine wives stay in town, and people shop local, this city will be fine."

Still, owners of the smallest businesses -- tattoo parlors, barber shops, tailoring services and dry cleaners -- can't help but feel the world is coming to an end.

Vietnam veteran William Helko, 54, and his wife, Marsha, decided they would have to default on the lease of their little Bowladium Cafe. The couple and their 16-year-old daughter, Britteny, have worked seven days a week in the place, which no one seems interested in buying.

Wiping a counter top, Helko said, "We have no choice. We know what's coming. You can see the fear in people's faces."

Across town, Nancy Nguyen, co-owner of Combat Barber, where four barbers do 1,000 "skintight cuts" a week on eight chairs, sighed and said, "If the Marines leave, we'll close and look for work in the big city to pay our Twentynine Palms bills."

Retired Maj. Brenda Roberts had more pressing problems on her mind as Kathleen Racki manicured her nails at a downtown beauty shop.

"My husband is deploying," she said. "We've been married six months. There are five kids in the family."

The newlyweds plan to gather the children together in the living room, probably this weekend, to explain where their father is going and how to stay in contact with him.

"The concept of saying he'll be gone for a year isn't so hard," she added, her eyes glancing downward as if to inspect her nails. "But we haven't decided whether to tell them he might not be coming back."

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