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The Orange County Register March 9, 2003

Ready for battle

Local National Guard troops are among thousands nationwide preparing for active duty in a time of crisis.

By John Gittelsohn and Catrine Johansson

With tensions rising around the world, more than 1,000 California National Guard troops - including at least 135 from Orange County - are snapping out of their lives as store clerks, mailmen, firefighters or students and snapping into lives as soldiers.

The troops, part of the Bravo Company of Los Alamitos-based 40th Infantry Division, were ordered to prepare for mobilization over the past two weeks.

Westin Sanchez, 53, a grocery store clerk from Buena Park, spread out his gear Saturday for inspection on a concrete floor at the National Guard Armory in Orange and recalled how he re-enlisted in the Guard after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"It was the patriotic thing to do considering what's going on with our country," Sanchez said. The gear inspection and physical training begins a week of inoculations, health checks, life insurance updates and other preparations for deployment.

During his more than 14 years in the National Guard, Sanchez has been deployed to riots and earthquakes - never to a war.

"But if we don't help people that are being told what to do and say, then nobody will," Sanchez said.

Bravo Company officers declined to disclose their assignment for security reasons and because they have not officially been told whether they will be shipped overseas or not. But others said deployment to Korea topped the list of possibilities.

"The 40th Infantry trains for Korea," said Col. Terry Knight, spokesman for the California National Guard.

Should the Bravo Company be deployed overseas, it will be folded into an Army unit and its soldiers will have the same duties as Army soldiers.

The atmosphere of military discipline and procedure seemed to kick in for all the soldiers in the Orange armory, even for Rudy Guillen, 20, of Orange, who signed up with the National Guard because he thought he'd be able to stay in the United States "and help people" here. He finished boot camp one month ago, but Saturday he was preparing for war on foreign soil.

"I've never hurt anybody so I'm scared about the fighting," Guillen said, as he waited for his sergeant to inspect his gear. "But I signed up for it."

The Bravo Company soldiers are scheduled to go to the National Guard's Camp Roberts on Tuesday, where they will be joined by units from Ventura, Santa Rosa, Ontario and San Lorenzo.

"It's obvious I'd rather stay home," said Lt. Jacques Laffoon, 37, an Anaheim police officer who ended a six-month stint with Bravo Company in Saudi Arabia last June. "But if I wasn't called up, I think I would have been a little disappointed."

Some soldiers in Bravo Company said they are unhappy to redeploy so soon after returning home. Still, getting called up is no surprise given the news, they said. The only surprise is where and when they will go on duty.

"Everything changes every 24 hours," said Sgt. Paul Kendle, a teacher from Anaheim Hills. "A few days ago, they were asking for people to go to Kosovo. Now they're talking about other places."

Already, about 800 members of the San Bernardino-based 1-185th Armored Division, which fights with 70-ton Abrams M1A1 tanks, have undergone pre-deployment processing at Camp Roberts - physicals, weapon training, going over wills and other papers.

"We've been told we'll be gone in one or two weeks," said Maj. John McBrearty, acting commander of the 1-185th, which includes several Orange County residents.

The Pentagon has mobilized 176,000 members of the National Guard and other military reserves to support campaigns in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and other deployments overseas and in the United States. But this could be the first major deployment of reservists to Korea, which has become increasingly tense as war with Iraq seems to be drawing closer.

Last week, the Pentagon announced it was sending 24 B-1 and B-52 bombers to the island of Guam after North Korean MiG fighters shadowed a U.S. reconnaissance plane over international waters. That's in addition to 37,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Korea and the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group, which has sailed off the peninsula since early February.

This month, about 500,000 U.S. and South Korean troops will join an annual training exercise called Foal Eagle.

The show of force is a signal to North Korea that Washington can fight two wars at the same time, Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Friday.

"In the course of preparing for possible military action elsewhere - that is, Iraq - we as a prudent measure are identifying forces that could be brought to bear in Korea should there be a contingency there," Davis said. "We're moving some forces as a deterrent now. Others are being moved to respond later should somebody be foolish enough to try to take advantage of the situation."

Davis said similar movements took place in Korea during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and in 1998, when Iraq expelled United Nations weapon inspectors.

But some military analysts said the current U.S. military measures show that hostilities are reaching a boiling point.

"These are not routine deployments," said Patrick Garrett, an analyst at Global Security.org, a Washington, D.C., military think tank. "The fact these are taking place is extremely important and disturbing. It shows people in the government think the possibility of war with North Korea is greater today or this week or this month than it's been."

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have risen since October, when U.S. officials accused North Korea of pursuing a uranium-enrichment program in violation of a 1994 agreement. In addition to last weekend's spy-plane incident, North Korea recently fired a missile during the inauguration of South Korea's new president and threatened to abandon an armistice that ended the Korean War. Mobilizing the National Guard also shows how thinly stretched the Army is, Garrett said. The 4th Infantry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas, would usually go, but its forces are aboard ships off Turkey, waiting for a possible war with Iraq.

Another armored unit trained for Korea, the Third Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division out of Fort Lewis, Wash., is undergoing an equipment upgrade - known in new military parlance as "transformation" - and will not be combat ready until May.

"It looks like the 40th is the only unit available," Garrett said. "Everybody else is doing something else."


Copyright 2003, The Orange County Register