Ever since U.S. Marines first started deploying to Fallujah back in early 2004, military families in and around California's Camp Pendleton have fretted over their loved ones serving in Iraq's deadly City of Mosques. Over the last four years, hundreds of wives and parents have received unthinkably bad news from some 8,000 miles away. But this week, as a moment of peace and quiet marks life in Fallujah, the roles have reversed. A battalion of Camp Pendleton Marines in Fallujah now bears the burden of worrying about family back home, loved ones fleeing the wildfires that ravage San Diego County and parts of the huge Marine base there.
"I'm sure you've all heard that Southern California is on fire," said Capt. Shane Duffle in a briefing Thursday night at Camp Baharia, the American base just outside of Fallujah. He and other officers and non-coms from Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment were instructed to keep their men informed and identify troops whose families have been evacuated as the fire burned across the base.
Back in Pendleton, the Key Volunteer Network made up of the Marines' wives and the few Marines who stayed behind has reversed its alert system. Usually geared to keep wives informed of good news and bad from abroad, it was repurposed this week to help the wives rescue each other from the fire and to keep the Marines and sailors in Fallujah informed as best as they can.
"I called and [my wife] said the fire is surrounding Pendleton," said Lance Cpl. Ricardo Lozoya, 20, whose wife fled the military housing near the town of Fallbrook when the fire closed in from the surrounding hills. A neighbor rushed to the house and told Lozoya's wife they needed to go. They fled to another area on base until it, too, was threatened. "She said she could see the flames," Lozoya said. His leaders allowed him and other troops affected by the fire to use satellite phones from outposts in Fallujah or return to base to use the Internet to reach home.
"Everybody talks about what it takes to be out here in Fallujah, Marines facing adversity," said Master Sgt. Dennis Webb, whose pregnant wife and two small children fled the Las Pulgas section of the base on Wednesday. "But it's nothing when you compare it to what they're going through right now. I mean, that shows true courage. That's why I married her," he said. At least 10 of the wives of Webb's Weapons Company Marines were evacuated. "They're taking care of each other," he said.
Navy surgeon Luis "Doc" Bautista said his wife, who is five months pregnant, escaped their new home in Fallbrook with their two little girls, one four and the other just a little more than a year old. They first fled to nearby Temecula and then, when Temecula was threatened, drove about 50 miles north to Anaheim until the air became too thick with smoke for the girls. They wound up driving all the way to Fresno to escape not only the fires in San Diego but those in Los Angeles, too. Often not able to reach her, he tracked the fires' progress on the website of the local paper, the North County Times, and occasionally called his own house to see if the answering machine still worked. "At least then I knew it wasn't charred," he said. 'But really anything else is replaceable. My family is all that matters."
Out at a dangerous outpost in an industrial area of Fallujah known as Sinaa, Lance Cpl. Jon Juarez said he and others in his platoon saw the irony of the situation. "You leave home and it's safer here [in Fallujah] than it is at home." His wife was evacuated from the fires in Vista in northern San Diego County, while his parents fled their home in Santa Clarita near Los Angeles. His best friend lost his home to the flames east of L.A.. "You learn when you're this far away how helpless you are," he said. "No matter what can happen to us out here, anything can still happen back home." He said that he and his comrades whose families have been evacuated just had to have faith that the other Marines at Pendleton will take care of their loved ones. "You can't assume the worst," he said, otherwise, "you couldn't do your job."