For Marines, each farewell feels like the first

Perry is a Times staff writer.

The drill was new to some of the families attached to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369. But it was a familiar and heartbreaking scene Sunday for most, who said goodbye yet again to hundreds of Marines deploying to Iraq for repeat tours.

“This is our fourth and counting,” said Barbara Berrios, 25, whose husband is Sgt. Andre Berrios, also 25. Their son, Lucas, is 5 months old.

Sara Matthess, 21, was a newcomer to the stress and emotion of saying goodbye. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she embraced her fiance, Cpl. Chad Whitehouse, 21. Then, as Whitehouse walked to a waiting bus, Matthess hugged her mother, Peggy Matthess of Dana Point.

How will she spend the months with her fiance away? “Planning my wedding,” she said between sobs.


The squadron’s 340-plus Marines and sailors are headed for Anbar province, west of Baghdad. Their primary mission is to support ground troops attempting to prevent insurgents from using wide-open stretches of desert as smuggling corridors for weapons and fighters.

The squadron came home from Iraq just 12 months ago and, after a few weeks of leave, began training for another seven-month deployment.

“It’s not that we’re looking for a fight, but we’re ready for a fight,” said Lt. Col. William Zamagni, a Cobra pilot and the squadron commander. This will be his third tour in Iraq.

Without the adrenaline rush of combat, complacency can set in, which can be dangerous. Sgt. Maj. Robert Ledferd, the senior enlisted man in the squadron, is determined not to let that happen.

“We’re going to stick to the basics,” he said. “We’re going to keep focused and keep looking out for each other.”

Family members have their own basics, their own need to focus. They’ve been given lectures and received pamphlets on how to cope.

“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” said Kristen Stegmiller, 27, as she embraced her husband, 1st Lt. George Stegmiller, 29, who is on his first deployment.

Even for Iraq veterans in the squadron, each deployment offers new challenges. Lance Cpl. Fabian Padilla, 23, is making his second trip to Iraq, the first since the birth of his son.

“The first time, it was a new experience and he didn’t know what to expect,” said his father, Enrique Padilla of Lancaster. “Now he’s a father, and it’s more difficult. You can see the pain on his face.”

As the buses arrived to take the troops to planes at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, families snapped last-minute pictures, children began to cry and even a Marine or two had moist eyes.

“Between deployments, you forget how hard it is,” said Shawnna Robb, 30, whose husband, Capt. Jeff Robb, 35, is leaving for his fourth deployment.

“If you didn’t forget,” she said, “you’d never be able to do it again.”