Marine Sgt. Pablo Hernandez bore bad news: He was shipping out within a month. But the punch of his words didn't hit until he said he was going to prepare a will. Then his wife, Jessica, wept.
"My heart stopped," she said.
After packing their rucksacks and checking their gear and stowing their night vision goggles, war fighters have one last thing to do before shipping out.
They have to decide who would get the mountain bike and who the boombox. They have to face a harsh possibility and come up with a distribution of their worldly goods that would leave their family with keepsakes and comfort if they don't return.
At California military bases, the number of Marines, soldiers, National Guardsmen and sailors who are making their wills has more than tripled in recent months as the United States braced for war with Iraq.
Here at Camp Pendleton, where 30,000 Marines have deployed, lawyers held classes explaining and completing wills, for as many as 100 at a time. In San Diego, where 19,000 sailors have shipped out, lawyers boarded vessels to draw up wills and powers-of-attorney. At Camp Roberts near Paso Robles, where 3,700 have been dispatched to posts at home and overseas, lawyers have made sure all National Guardsmen got a chance to make wills.
Preparing the wills forces men and women, many in their early 20s and ready to fight, to confront the unspeakable. It is a chore that underscores the gravity of their mission.
It means weighing lives, crystallizing emotions, evaluating relationships and asking: What will happen to my loved ones if I die?
It's not the sort of introspection expected of most twentysomethings.
Some become cavalier, joking that Uncle Sam doesn't pay enough for them to have acquired stuff anyone else would want. Others act as though a will is just one more form to be completed. Still others agonize.
"When I see a young Marine or sailor complete a will, I do feel they sense the importance of what they are facing," said Maj. Tom Sanzi, director of legal assistance at Camp Pendleton. "They're being forced to think, 'If I die, then what?' "
Sgt. Hernandez, for his part, decided all of his possessions -- the most valuable being an '84 Cutlass Sierra and a '92 Ford Escort -- would go to his wife.
He'd like her to give his 27-inch television and PlayStation to his younger brother. The money from his military life insurance would be split between his wife and his parents, who live in Victorville, where his father milks cows at a dairy.
Hernandez padded across the blue-gray carpet of the legal services classroom at Camp Pendleton and snagged a seat at one of two long wooden tables. He was lucky. Many Marines had to stand. Fluorescent lights buzzed, two fans whirled overhead and a Coke machine hummed.
Others brought their wives and babies, but Hernandez came alone. The last thing he wanted was to see Jessica crying.
Capt. Beth Harvey, an attorney, stood at the front. She explained that she would lead everyone through a standard, no-frills California statutory will, a six-page form. Anyone needing a more complicated, personalized document could make an appointment with the staff.
Harvey used the military phonetic alphabet to make sure everyone stayed apace. "Look at section Bravo," she called out. By the end of an hour, the Marines, who used one another as witnesses, walked out with their notarized wills in hand.
The finality of it, Hernandez would later say, was "a little weird."
When Jessica first met her husband, she admired his gentlemanly ways. He opened restaurant and car doors for her. She knew no one else who was as respectful. They could talk for hours, and it always seemed they had more to say.
After dating 1 1/2 years, Hernandez knelt before Jessica and asked her to become his wife. Four months later, they eloped and married before a justice of the peace. Jessica's father was a laborer in the fields of Calexico. He was very strict. He felt that his daughter should have finished college before she wed. But when both families learned of the marriage, they celebrated with a big church wedding.
Today, Pablo and Jessica Hernandez, both 22, live at Camp Pendleton. She works full time, earning $8 an hour as a cashier at the gas station just outside the base gates. She also attends Cal State San Marcos, majoring in psychology. Hernandez brings her flowers almost every day. When he goes to work, he leaves notes for her: "Good morning, Toots. Hope your day goes well. I love you."
When Hernandez learned of his deployment status, he came home and told Jessica, "I have to talk to you." She knew something was wrong. Pablo Hernandez would say later that they had a once-in-a-lifetime talk. "It's a conversation that sticks with you; it stays in your head," he said.
He did most of the talking.
"Hopefully, I will go and come back in one piece," he recalls saying.
But what if he didn't? He had survived two serious car crashes and felt as if God had already been very generous.
So he told Jessica he would make out a will. "She felt like I was telling her I was going to die."
Four days later, he attended the legal class, came home and handed his will to Jessica. He felt relief.
Jessica felt cold. She wondered, "What if I really have to use it?"
Even before war with Iraq seemed likely, the number of military wills skyrocketed.
The increase began immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, perhaps because many believed that they would soon be deployed to retaliate.
At the Naval Legal Service in San Diego, which conducts work for eight Southwestern states, including California, attorneys drew up an average of 400 wills every three months before Sept. 11, said Capt. Ron Clove, commanding officer of the program.
During the three months afterward, Clove said, they prepared 3,000.
The march toward war in Iraq has caused a second wave of wills. During the last quarter, which ended in December, Navy lawyers prepared almost 1,500.
Marine Cpl. Janelle Hardy and her husband are part of this second wave.
Hardy, 25, and her husband, a Marine mortar man who shipped out in January, decided the nonlegal issues first. They would be buried together in the wild outdoors that they both so loved. If one died, the other should feel free to marry again.
Finally, both Mormons, they prayed for God's guidance about the will.
They readily decided that their 2-year-old son, William, would inherit everything. But the sticking point: Who would take care of their little boy if they both died?
Janelle, a Marine air-ground task force planner who grew up in Rancho Cordova, will ship out any day.
She wanted her mother to raise William.
Her husband wanted his sister to do it.
In the end, they compromised and asked Janelle's 21-year-old sister to bring up William. They gave the toddler a picture of himself with his parents in their blue dress uniforms.
As she waits for her orders, Hardy tells William how much his daddy loves him, how he'll come home as soon as he has "taken care of business," and how he's protecting William's freedom -- as well as everybody else's.
William doesn't understand what freedom means, but he gathers that it's something important.
He also knows that one day soon, his mother will leave to do the very same thing.
"I worry about him, how he'll handle it," said Hardy, her blue eyes brimming with tears.
In one respect, Hardy and her husband had it easy. They had only one child to think about. The more complicated the family, military attorneys say, the greater the difficulty in devising a will.
For Petty Officer 2nd Class Charles Holland, 42, creating his will meant sleepless nights. It was a puzzle, a choice between his two children -- one grown, the other an infant. It gnawed at him, adding to his anxiety about shipping out.
Holland had been in the Navy for six years as an electrician's mate. He left in 1985, two months after his son was born. He settled in Indiana, where he works as an electrical foreman at a boat building company.
Almost three years ago, Holland joined the reserves, as a construction electrician. Then he remarried. Holland and his second wife have a 7-month-old daughter. Because of his job skills, he learned in February that he was needed in the Persian Gulf.
"It is truly the first time I've had to think about the possibility of dying in a conflict," Holland said.
He was sent to the Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado, Calif., to await deployment. He thought about his years with his son, now 18. They'd traveled together on so many trips. He had raised him as best he could.
But if he died in the Persian Gulf, what would happen to his infant daughter? How could he provide for his wife and baby daughter without offending his son?
"If I'm not going to be here, there's no reason your sister shouldn't grow up with some of the things you were able to have," he said he told his son. "It's not meant to shortchange you. It's just that I'm trying to provide for her the same as I did for you."
In San Diego, Holland sat with a Navy attorney and drew up his will. He left most of his money and property to his wife and baby.
Will in hand, he felt the pressure ease. "Here is this document," he said. "It's my last wishes."