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A long goodbye.

Byline: JEFF WRIGHT The Register-Guard

LANCE CPL. Christopher Vassar kissed his bride, shook hands with his stepson, tickled the chin of his 9-month-old daughter, then kissed his bride again.

And then the 24-year-old Marine reservist from Eugene - a CD of country singer Kenny Chesney in one hand and his gear in the other - marched toward the U.S. Marine Reserve Center where he and 145 others reported for active duty Tuesday.

Vassar and the other members of Company A, 6th Engineering Support Battalion, are bound for Camp Pendleton, Calif., and then, most likely, somewhere in the Middle East.

Vassar leaves as a married man - though just barely. He and his new wife, the former Carolyn Contreras, exchanged vows at closing time Monday at Linn County Justice Court in Lebanon.

A week ago, "we didn't have a date set - we were just waiting for the right time," Vassar said. That time became "now" once he got word over the weekend that Company A was shipping out.

Vassar and the other reservists don't know where they'll end up or how long they'll be gone. What they do know is they've been called up as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, President Bush's military campaign against global terrorism, and that they could play a role in any impending war with Iraq.

The Navy is deploying a seven-ship armada with up to 7,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton, but it's unknown whether any Oregon reservists will be among those on board. The local reservists' call-up is supposed to last no longer than 12 months.

Vassar's leave-taking was part of a tableau of tears as anxious wives, girlfriends, parents and siblings said their goodbyes in the Eugene reserve center parking lot. Long hugs were plentiful, while the loneliest image may have been of reservists who showed up alone.

Later in the day, local reservists learned they would be allowed to return home Tuesday night, and that family members can come visit Thursday before the company heads out Friday morning.

But no one knew that Tuesday when they said their farewells in the morning, least of all Kristin Smithey, a University of Oregon student from Rainier. She held on tight before finally releasing boyfriend Michael Stout from her grip.

"I don't fear our relationship hurting at all," she said a few minutes later. "I just fear he's going to get hurt, or worse."

The couple were friends in high school and have seen their relationship blossom since then, Smithey said. "He's just the most polite man I've ever met," she said, fighting back tears. "I've never been treated so well in my life."

The battalion is trained to repair and build bridges, aircraft runways and other infrastructure and equipment, and Smithey is all too aware that Stout is among the combat engineers most likely to be placed in harm's way.

She said she respects Stout's passion for military service, but is less certain about her country's call to arms. Still, she said: "I do know the U.S. has some positives in who they're sending. I know they're sending the best damn Marine."

Lance Cpl. Brian Williams of Springfield, accompanied by girlfriend Ashley Villalobos, said he's not worried and expects to return home sooner rather than later.

"Hopefully, it's just a few months," he said of the call-up. "They say it could be up to a year, but I doubt it.

"If they tell me I'm going to Iraq, then I'll get scared."

Williams, 19, said he had to quit his job at Home Depot, but expects to find it waiting for him when he returns. He said he questions the necessity of war with Iraq - but that's not the point.

"I don't agree with Bush's decision, but he's my boss," he said. "I don't always agree with my boss at work, either."

Vassar, the 24-hour groom, was less sanguine. Six months away from completing his six-year stint as a reservist, he said he responded with anger when he learned he was heading out.

"I was upset at the president and at (Saddam) Hussein - just mad at the way we live our lives and take our lives for granted," he said. "I think Bush is trying to start a war, put in a pro-democracy regime and take another country's oil."

But Maggie Winslow, Vassar's mother, said she believes her son is being sent on an honorable mission.

"I think the message of freedom is really important," she said. "It's important to say, `We're not going to accept insanity.' '

CAPTION(S):

PAUL CARTER / The Register-Guard Marine Lance Cpl. Geoff Matlock, 21, of Salem, says goodbye to his wife, Liz, while his father, Steve, stands by at the Eugene reserve center.
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Title Annotation:Departing reservists share tears and hugs with families; General News
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 15, 2003
Words:782
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