Union Tribune

November 7, 2003

Camp Pendleton unit members, families resigned to the inevitable

By Rick Rogers and Matt Hall

CAMP PENDLETON The 20,000-strong 1st Marine Division has been formally ordered back to Iraq for a seven-month tour of duty, the Pentagon announced yesterday, sparking both pride and resentment among the Marines and their families that seemed to boil down to fated acceptance.

Many of the troops helped destroy the Republican Guard and topple Saddam Hussein earlier this year. Now they will head back starting in March on a peacekeeping mission that already is as worrisome as combat to those who will be left at home.

"It's hard and extremely stressful. You think, 'Oh, gosh, here we go again,' " said Stephanie Chalkey, whose husband, Chad, is a staff sergeant who returned in May from Iraq, where he was a sniper.

"There are a lot of spouses who say, 'How much is enough, and when is it going to be enough?' " said Toni Riano, president of the Camp Pendleton Enlisted Wives Club.

Still, "we all knew what we were getting into" with military life, said Riano, whose husband, Fred, is attached to a special-operations unit.

But the anxiety is tempered by the reality of Marine Corps life: Deployments are inevitable, especially in wartime.

Artilleryman Marcelo Castillo, 24, spent seven months in Iraq helping secure the southern part of the country with the 5th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment.

"I wish I didn't have to go back, but we're U.S. Marines and that's our job," said Castillo, a father of three who had not told his wife he is leaving again.

Navy medic Lonnie Lewis, 24, is eager to return and take care of the Marines in his unit.

"They're my boys, and I trust them," he said. "I thought we finished the job, but maybe we didn't finish it good enough."

Some are upset that they will be put back in harm's way to help the Army, which is struggling against almost daily casualties and anger from many Iraqis.

Lance Cpl. Philip Gentile, 19, was told he will deploy either to Iraq again or to the Mediterranean Sea. Standing near Dorothy's Military Shop and Laundry by a sign that read, "Welcome Home Job Well Done," Gentile said, "We don't mind doing the job, but everyone's fed up with the Army because this happens every time."

Starting in March, the 20,000 Marines mostly from Camp Pendleton and Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and possibly from Twentynine Palms will arrive in Iraq. Joining the active-duty Marines in Iraq will be 1,500 Marine reservists and 7,000 soldiers.

Another 20,000-strong Marine force, probably from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, will replace the 1st Marine Division in late 2004.

The Marines will be responsible for security, stability and reconstruction missions in the western half of Iraq, currently occupied by the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.

Although most of the vast area is lightly populated, it includes Fallujah and Ramadi, cities with some of the bloodiest resistance to U.S. occupation.

Though the individual deploying units have not been identified yet, Pentagon and congressional sources said local infantry, support and helicopter units will ship out.

The reservists would be called up for one year's service beginning in January.

The Camp Pendleton division's return to Iraq comes almost a year after it raced to Baghdad in 21 days. After President Bush declared major combat operations ended May 1, the Marines occupied much of the southeastern sector of Iraq from the end of major fighting until the last unit left in September.

While the Army was losing scores of soldiers to attacks, the Marines did not lose anyone to hostile action during the occupation.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced the deployment schedule at a Pentagon briefing yesterday.

Although he denied that the heavy use of National Guard and reserve units proved that the Army presence was too small, the total force plan for next year in Iraq shows a significant shift toward the part-time warriors.

The current U.S. force in Iraq of about 130,000 includes 29,000 Army National Guard and Army Reserve personnel. Pentagon officials said the new Iraq force will total about 105,000, of which 39,000 will be reservists.

Some question using Marines whose traditional role is that of fast attack as an occupying force, but others see the Corps as the best answer to a tough problem in Iraq.

"The trademark of Marines is flexibility and adaptability," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "I'm not concerned the Marines will be overused or overtaxed."

Citing the Marines' regular six-month deployments on amphibious ships, the congressman said: "They have a good attitude toward being deployed. They are used to being deployed and separated" from their families.

Defense experts said the Marines might have an easier time in Iraq than the Army division they are replacing.

"The Marines' training and doctrine has prepared them better for this mission than many Army units," said Marcus Corbin, senior analyst for the Center for Defense Information, an independent think tank in Washington, D.C.

"They are more flexible to deal with coming under fire one moment and handing out humanitarian aid the next," he said. "They have thought and trained for it more than, say, a heavy-tank unit like the 4th Infantry Division."

Corbin said the Marines have trained for what they call "the three-block war," in which they can fight the enemy in combat on one block, separate warring parties on the second block and provide humanitarian aid on the third block.

While there might be strategic reasons for sending the Marines back to Iraq, it doesn't change some hard truths at home.

Soon Riano will again be a single parent, juggling the schedules of four children ages 6 to 19.

"The work doesn't just double," she said. "It goes way beyond doubling."

Derrick Anthony, 19, a Navy medic assigned to a Marine unit, found out a few weeks ago that he was going back. Though he has talked with his mother in Illinois every night since, he hasn't told her.

"I don't want to get her worried," Anthony said.

Yet the burden is part of being a Marine family.

"You have no choice but to make do," said Kelly Purdiman, whose husband is a staff sergeant assigned to the Camp Pendleton rifle range as a karate instructor. "After you ask, 'Haven't we given enough?' then you have to give in to the reality of making do without your husband."

Purdiman said spouses can grumble and let the deployments take a toll, or they can accept the situation and turn to other resources such as the Marine Corps, other family members and neighbors for a helping hand.

"You get by," she said. "It isn't always easy, but you make it in the end."

Hearing that her husband may again be headed to Iraq didn't faze Elaine Margeson.

"When he got home in May, I figured he'd be going again, so I'm ready," said Margeson, whose husband, Keith, is assigned to a combat engineering unit. Like others, she will rely on friends and support from the Marines along with shifting some responsibilities to her two children.

"It's an unsettled life," she said. "But it's the lifestyle we chose."

Union-Tribune staff writers David Hasemyer and James W. Crawley and Copley News Service writer Otto Kreisher contributed to this report.

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.