U.S. Marines and sailors wounded in Sunday's bombing in Beirut are expected to begin arriving Thursday at their home base here, while dozens of families continue their grim vigil awaiting news of their sons, brothers and husbands.
Maj. Gen. A.M. Gray, commander of the 2nd Marine Division, said today that "morale is at a fever-pitch high" among Marines stationed here.
But the mood remained somber in base housing complexes and apartment buildings and in the neighboring community of Jacksonville as families waited through the slow release of names of the dead and wounded.
"It's been extremely difficult on the families," said Capt. Mary Ann Krusa-Dossin, director of family services at the base. "Some of them are calling and saying they just can't take it any more. And no matter what you tell them, it's not going to make it any easier."
Time seems to be suspended here as base officials, hospital facilities and community volunteers are poised to offer assistance to the returning wounded and their grieving families.
Even though the massive, 9-month-old naval hospital located on the base has been on alert for the wounded since late Monday night, Gray said today that the first group will not arrive until Thursday afternoon.
More than 200 persons have called the family services center to volunteer food, counseling, money and temporary housing for relatives of the dead. A base chaplain said he has received 200 offers of housing for out-of-town relatives expected here when the wounded begin arriving.
As of today, only a few requests for assistance had been received from Marine families.
"We just don't know who needs what yet," said the Rev. Casimir Sabol, pastor of Infant of Prague Roman Catholic Church in Jacksonville.
More than 500 friends and families of Marines gathered at an emotional memorial service at another Jacksonville church tonight, the first of several memorials scheduled this week to honor the dead and missing.
"As we say farewell, we are faced with the stark reality of these men's deaths," said the Rev. Ray Hobson, one of eight ministers who spoke to the gathering.
Many in the congregation sobbed openly throughout the ceremony, and four stern-faced Marine color guards stood holding flags in the front of the cavernous church hall.
While the military families at Camp Lejeune and its surrounding communities are still numbed by the news from Beirut, Hobson noted that they have been hit with more shocking news from the Carribean as Marines participated in the invasion of Grenada.
As the churchgoers departed tonight's service, many of the young women who have lost husbands or are awaiting word of their husbands' fates collapsed in the arms of relatives and friends.
One young woman, informed that her husband is missing, overheard a radio interview with a California woman who had been told that her husband was killed. The young woman broke into hysterical sobs, telling friends, "Get me away from this."
Her anguish was echoed throughout the group. The death toll has deeply touched this primarily military area.
Word was slow to reach here that Pentagon officials plan to release names of those known to be alive in Beirut.
"We have received very few calls asking about the list," said a spokesman in the base public affairs office, flooded with calls from anxious relatives since Sunday.
"What concerns me," he said, "is that if they call, and their loved one is not on the list, that would pretty much tell them the story."
Even as Camp Lejeune officials said the base was operating routinely today, several women reported that their husbands have been placed on alert and had their bags packed, ready for possible deployment, since Sunday.
One base official said that the deployment of about 300 replacement troops from here Sunday upgraded the alert status of other replacement troops but that the entire base is not on a high alert status.
Amid the frenzied preparations here to receive the wounded, a representative of the Marine Corps inspector general today began a regularly scheduled two-week inspection of the facility, examining everything from hospital records to the troops' physical condition and cleanliness of the barracks.
Lt. Linda Western, a base spokesman, said the inspection is conducted every three years and signifies that the base is operating as normally as possible.