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U.S. troops head for Mideast

By EMERY JEFFREYS

FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- About 2,000 members of Fort Bragg's crack 82nd Airborne were on full alert Tuesday awaiting orders to go to the Mideast to make sure Iraq's invasion of Kuwait does not spill over into Saudi Arabia.

Both the White House and the Pentagon refused to confirm reports the paratroopers would be mobilized, possibly before dawn Wednesday, but all leaves were cancelled and soldiers in the field ordered back to base.

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In Morehead City, N.C., 100 miles east of Fort Bragg, some 2,500 Marines from Camp LeJeune set sail for the Mediterranean, wearing khaki fatigues and long faces.

Staff Sgt. Gene DeForest, 36, said his goodbys to wife Susan and children -- Melissa, 10, Nicole, 5, and Ryan, 4. Melissa had heard about the invasion of Kuwait on television, so DeForest wanted to be sure she did not worry.

'Daddy and all his friends are going to take care of it,' he whispered, cupping her face in his hands. 'Daddy is going to go over and kick butt.'

At Pope Air Force Base, adjacent to Fort Bragg, there were no signs of the huge C-141 transport planes that would be needed to carry the 82nd Airborne's heavy artillery to Saudi Arabia, where they may be headed to bolster Saudi troops preparing to defend the Saudi-Kuwait border.

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Several less powerful C-130s were parked along the tarmac, and base officials refused to confirm or deny speculation that the C-141s would fly in during the night to pick up artillery equipment while civilian chartered jets were used to transport the paratroopers.

Meanwhile, indications of significant U.S. military activity were seen elsewhere. About 5 p.m. EDT, more than a dozen F-15 Eagle fighter jets took off from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, apparently headed overseas.

Exterior fuel tanks could be seen on the F-15s, indicating they were flying on extended trips. Supply planes were also seen flying into Langley during the day, another indication that a mission was being prepared.

The Marines who left Morehead City Tuesday afternoon were part of 15,000 sailors and soldiers scheduled for a routine, six-month training exercise in the Mediterranean when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's forces invaded oil-rich Kuwait last Thursday.

Thirty-four warships are already in the region, led by the aircraft carriers USS Independence and USS Eisenhower. The 15,000 additional men aboard 15 ships that left East Coast ports were led by the Mayport, Fla.-based carrier USS Saratoga, scheduled to rendezvous with a Soviet ship in the Atlantic.

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The Pentagon said the contingent will replace Eisenhower forces due to return home, but in previous Gulf crises the United States has doubled up its naval units, holding ships beyond their normal rotation.

The Marines were bused into Morehead City before dawn, wearing camouflage fatigues and carrying helmets, duffel bags, bedrolls, canteens and rifles, to board the dock landing ship USS Whidbey Island, the amphibious transport USS Nashville and the troop transport USS Inchon.

Lance Cpl. Robert Phillips, 20, of Bradenton, Fla., had a fishing pole in one hand and a tackle box in the other as he boarded the Inchon. Lance Cpl. Eric Mead, 21, of Kodiak, Alaska, carried a deck of cards.

'All I know is it's going to be hot down there and there are going to be some nice ports when we get time,' he said. 'I'm a pinochle player and I'm going to teach some people how to play pinochle.'

The troops had known for four months that they would be deployed, but their goodbys were especially poignant because families feared war could erupt by the time they reach the region two weeks from now.

First Lt. Chris Maxmin, 26, of Wilmington, Del., said he wasn't afraid of the escalating hostilities because 'that's my job.'

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But it bothered him that his mother cried.

'She said, 'I know you're trained for this, but just keep your head down,'' said Maxmin, who plans to marry his fiancee, Gina Reed, shortly after he returns. Reed flew to Camp LeJeune to see him before the he set sail.

'She's scared to death,' Maxmin said. 'I'm a little apprehensive too. I'd be stupid if I wasn't.'

Maxmin called his mother and sisters to say goodby Monday night, but his mother called him again before he left Camp LeJeune Tuesday.

Tori Maxmin, 22, said her brother became the man of the family when their father died. He was 8 years old at the time.

'I was 5 and my sister was 7 and Chris was only 8,' she said. 'When he joined the Marines, I hated them because they took my brother away when I was growing up. He couldn't come to my high school graduation because of the Marine Corps.'

She said her mother cried after talking to Maxmin Tuesday morning.

'He said he was scared,' Tori Maxmin said. 'But this is something he decided on his own. It's something he wants to do. His unit didn't get called to Panama last year and he felt rejected in some ways.'

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She said her brother has a cool head and she believes he will fight valiantly if he is sent into battle.

'He's a good guy. I'd rather have my brother fighting for this country than someone who doesn't have his heart in it,' she said.

Tori Maxmin said she intends to pray every day for the next six months that her brother comes home safely.

'When I talked to him I said, 'I'll pray for you,'' she said.

'He said, 'I'm not really religious.'

'I said, 'Yeah, but it doesn't hurt to have a lot of people on your side.''

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