With more and longer overseas missions foreseen, the Marine Corps could be stretched like never before

By Jeanette Steele
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

July 21, 2003

As if six months weren't enough.

On Christmas Eve, Heidi-Rose McFadden got bad news from her Marine husband on the Japanese Island of Okinawa. Instead of returning after a half year away, his unit was being held there indefinitely because of the war.

It was a similar scene at Trisha East's house. Her husband, just back from a standard six-month Marine deployment in December, had to leave again three weeks later, this time for Iraq.

It's a relatively common experience in the post-Sept. 11 military. Long or unexpected assignments are taking an added toll on San Diego County military families.

"I don't wish it on anybody, ever. I cried every night," said East, 23, whose husband returned in May. "I only got to talk to him for a total five minutes in the six months he was gone out in Iraq."

And the pain probably isn't over.

Some military analysts believe Marine units could be sent back to Iraq as war-weary Army troops are rotated home. And, Camp Pendleton families say they are being told by leaders to expect eight-or nine-month deployments in the near future.

The relentless pace could have a cost for the Pentagon, analysts said, by spurring an exodus when enlistments are up. An exodus could leave a less experienced military to follow the orders of an aggressive administration.

An estimated 50,000 troops from San Diego County deployed for the Iraq war. The bulk of the Marine infantry served four to six months.

About 20,500 Marines are still in Iraq and Kuwait, almost all coming from San Diego County bases or Twentynine Palms. They should return by September, the Defense Department has said.

The war effort has left a mark on military families here; they have lost at least 39 service members in the conflict.

McFadden regrets that her husband missed a year with their children, 9-year-old Monika-Rose and 3-year-old John.

"My son has changed so much in that year," said McFadden, 35. "Both the kids have shot up in height and intelligence. They are just growing into neat little people, and he's missing it."

Her husband is a helicopter pilot at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. His unit, along with a Pendleton infantry battalion, was forced to stay on Okinawa because scheduled replacements were diverted to Iraq.

Some Marine spouses suspect there are more unexpected deployments to come.

Elaine Margeson, 44, welcomed her Marine husband back from Iraq in May. But she has mixed emotions. She knows the call may go out again.

"I can foresee it just because they are saying the troop levels have to stay up (in Iraq.) It's not going to be a shock," she said. But, "I'm really, really dreading it."

Military analysts envision the same scenario: If not again to Iraq, then Marines will go to another hot spot.

In Iraq, the Marines may be called to bolster the coalition occupation force, especially if other nations follow France and Germany's lead and decline to send troops, said Charles Pena, military analyst with the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

"All servicemen of all branches will be asked to do more tours of duty in Iraq. It's the price of occupation," Pena said. "As long as this administration remains committed to nation-building in Iraq, they will be asked."

The Defense Department said it would maintain a 148,000-person force in Iraq, even though the 16,000-person Army 3rd Infantry Division is slated to return home this fall.

Officials at Marine headquarters wouldn't comment on any plans to dispatch troops, but they confirmed that scheduled deployments may be weeks or months longer than usual in the near future because the war threw off the normal rotation.

Another analyst thinks the Army will shoulder the Iraq burden alone. Jay Farrar, a former Marine officer who works for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Pentagon will resist pressure to supplement the Army force with Marines.

"The Marines will continue to be used the way they have been used for the recent past, including Iraq: That's to engage and be part of the initial fight, and once that fight is pretty much over, the Marines for the most part will be pulled out," Farrar said.

Still, no one thinks the Marines will get a break.

Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., are in Africa, the U.S. force closest to war-torn Liberia if the White House decides to send in troops. The Camp Pendleton-based forces bear geographic responsibility for the Middle East if hostilities heat up there.

"The security environment around the world is even more volatile now than it was in the early to mid-1990s. Marine forces . . . are going to be called upon more frequently to respond to various situations than they ever have been before," Farrar said.

"For the foreseeable future, full careers for Marines will be spent far more mobilely than they have been so far."

Marine families who are used to six-month separations almost every other year say they will weather the additional demands.

But it may come at a price.

"You're seeing a lot of estrangement between husband and wife, resentment and discipline problems on the part of the kids, and troubles managing the household are culminating into financial crises," said Navy wife Meredith Leyva.

She founded a Web site for military spouses called CinCHouse.com, which stands for "commander-in-chief of the house." Leyva said some women frequenting her site are near the breaking point.

Leyva blames too many military commitments and the downsizing of forces in the 1990s. Troop levels dropped from 2.17 million in 1987 to 1.4 million today, according to Pentagon data. Marine ranks dropped from 199,000 to today's 172,000, which includes 33,000 at Camp Pendleton.

Shelley MacDermid studies the topic as co-director of Purdue University's Military Family Research Institute. In June, she told the Senate Armed Services Committee that she is "increasingly concerned about depletion" of the stamina of military families.

It's not just the deployments, she said, it's the long hours leading up to them.

"People may be better able to handle deployments if, when they are home, they are able to replenish or rejuvenate," MacDermid said. "It's hard to do that when you're not really there because you are working long hours or feeling the stress of unpredictability."

With the sacrifices made since the military has shifted into high gear, analysts predict people will leave the service.

"When it comes time to re-up, I wouldn't be surprised if people say, 'Enough.' That's my major concern right now," Pena said.

If so, he said, the loss of experienced people could hobble the military's capacity to act.

However, that's balanced by anecdotal stories of formerly undecided Marines who re-enlisted because of the war. They say they feel their training is now being used.

Leyva thinks troops returning from Iraq will continue to support the decision to fight there, but will begin to question whether it was worthwhile personally.

"At some point, service members will say, 'I've done my job. I've done my duty. Now I need to do my duty for my family.' "

In the meantime, military families are savoring precious time together.

After a year's wait, McFadden looks forward to her husband's return this week. There are plans for a family camping trip in Washington state. Long-delayed household projects will be attacked.

But, if bad news came again, McFadden said, she's strong enough to survive it.

"I'm ready for him to come home! If he does call me and say, 'I'm not coming home,' I'll be mad," she said. "But I'll still be here."



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Jeanette Steele: (760) 476-8244; jen.steele@uniontrib.com

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Sempers,

Roger