I MEF Marines face uncertainty as flow to Kuwait continues

6 Feb 2003 | Sgt Joseph R. Chenelly

The mission is not top secret and the destination is anything but unknown, but the final part of the familiar cadence is accurate for the leathernecks with I Marine Expeditionary Force. They don't know when they'll be coming home.

Those combat-ready Marines have been departing Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Twentynine Palms, Calif., almost nightly for several weeks. Facing the possibility of being tasked with disarming Iraq, they're headed for Kuwait as part of a massive military buildup in support of the global war on terrorism.

A chilly, salty fog rolling off the Pacific Ocean did little to help dry the tear-stained faces left behind when busloads of warriors from I MEF Headquarters Group left Camp Pendleton in the early hours of Jan. 31.

Night after night, families watched on as their loved ones boarded white buses headed to March Air Reserve Base. Pregnant wives warily waved to their departing husbands. Fathers kissed their newborn babies goodbye. Newlyweds shared a promise that their young relationship would endure this trying time. Other, more senior Marine families strengthened themselves on the memories of surviving past deployments.

The departing Marines had already tagged and loaded their seabags into trucks. Nuclear, biological and chemical specialists gave a final predeployment chance to change out any defective or old protective masks, suits and other gear.

The recently smallpox-immunized Marines held their M-16 rifles with their knees as the buses left the base because the steel rifle barrels were so cold to the touch. Soon, the desert sun would heat the same rifle barrels to near-scorching temperatures.

When the bus doors opened to let the leathernecks out, the vehicles were parked outside the same hangar at March ARB that thousands of combatants used when flying to the Persian Gulf 12 years earlier. Then their mission was to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm.

The hangar housed a drawn-out but thorough deployment process being run by mobilized reservists with 4th Transport Support Battalion. The TSB Marines had more than the symbolic "red patch" signifying they were running the show there; they were the only ones wearing green camouflaged utilities.

Processing the Marines and gear of I MHG and riflemen from 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment took the entire morning and most of the afternoon. Their immediate future unclear, hundreds of the world's finest still slept in platoon formations on the concrete grinder outside while others took rest wherever they could find a place to lie down. Some of these Marines were basic students at the School of Infantry just weeks ago.

For combat-ready Marines, these temporary conditions barely raises an eyebrow as they have already traded in their comforts of home for future cots, tents and fighting holes.

Just before taking off, teams of Marines loaded countless seabags into the bellies of chartered commercial jetliners. Several 747s and DC-10s were filled to capacity.

Armed with weapons and training, the I MEF combat specialists eventually raced down the runway beginning a 20-hour flight from the near-perfect weather of southern California and headed for the desert climate of Kuwait, where the nights can be frigid and the days blistering.

The men and women embarking on this journey carry on the legacy of more than six decades worth of history. Camp Pendleton-trained leathernecks have seen action in nearly every major American-involved conflict since World War I and through Operation Enduring Freedom. Marines from Pendleton were victorious in the Pacific during the bloody island hopping campaign of World War II. They successfully faced down the toughest conditions at Chosin "Frozen" Reservoir in North Korea.

The leathernecks are prepared to whatever their country needs. For most, that includes training along with the other American and coalition forces already in Kuwait. For others, their long transit may just be starting.