PORT MOREHEAD, N.C. — STRIDING through the dust storm whipped up by the whirling blades of his helicopter, Gen. Colin Powell approached a contingent of US marines waiting to board a ship bound for the Persian Gulf. The four-star general, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the nation's highest-ranking man in uniform, returned their salutes. Then, with an in-gathering gesture, he said, ``Break ranks. Come on in.''
As the troops pressed around him, General Powell told them: ``We're all proud of you. We're all behind you. God bless you.''
Rarely in recent memory has a general offering such dockside sentiments spoken for so much of the United States as Powell did last Friday - and the marines there knew it.
Earlier, as servicemen loaded amphibious light armored vehicles (LAVs) onto the USS Pensacola, an onlooker proudly told a Marine officer:
``Sure is different this time than Vietnam. You got the whole country behind you. Bring those boys back. You come on back.''
``Everybody's behind us this time. I'm glad to see that,'' agreed a first lieutenant who served in operation Just Cause in Panama. For security reasons, outbound marines were not allowed to give their names or hometowns.
``The flag means more to me now,'' said a lance corporal assigned as a diesel mechanic to a LAV. As his unit pulled out of the nearby Camp Lejeune, he was touched to see people along the road waving the flag. ``I feel pretty good about it.''
The Carolina coast is sprinkled with Marine bases from which command, air, ground, and support units were being mobilized for the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade.
By as early as today the men and materials were to finish loading onto the 13 ships of Naval Amphibious Group Two based in Norfolk, Va., and head for Saudi Arabia to join the international forces of Operation Desert Shield.
Abrigade has on average around 15,000 marines and sailors, all with friends and families who want them back.
The LAV mechanic talked of a telephone call to his parents. ``I told them not to worry and that I would write.''
He said during that conversation there was ``more sincerity - maybe a little silence over the phone - especially when I mentioned where my belongings would go. I hated to call home to tell them that. At the end of the conversation it came down to that.''
Yellow ribbons, symbol of a prayed-for safe and speedy return, are as profuse in Port Morehead as the canna and crepe myrtle blossoms of late summer. Ribbons trail from car antennas, adorn waist-high hurricane fences around ranch homes and the gingerbread railings of white clapboard victorians. Hardly a store fails to display a bow of yellow. Few lamp posts lack a flag.
On a local radio station, a pizza parlor announced it is seeking 5,000 signatures for a goodwill message to send to the United States servicemen in Saudi Arabia.
Down at the port, the marines waiting to board the Pensacola were sober, confident, and resolute. The troops don't know if they will see action, but as General Powell told the press, the mission of Desert Shield is to ``deter and defend.''
``We're not looking for a war. We don't want a war. If we get there in sufficient numbers, there won't be a war,'' the general said.
A Marine spokesman at the Marine Air Station at Cherry Point, N.C., put Powell's ``sufficient numbers'' comment in context. The brigade being raised on the East Coast will have some of every type of Marine capability at its disposal, and supplies to sustain itself for 30 days of combat.
In addition, the entire Marine force on the West Coast has been redeployed to Desert Shield.
``When we go at force level, we're at max warp. We can throw everything at them - air, sea, ground. It's a hair-raising capability,'' said Master Sgt. Keith Hoch. ``This is what we go to a major war with.''
``No one standing in this group wants to go to combat,'' said a corporal who is a gunner on an LAV. ``But if we do, we're ready.''
To prepare for combat, the first lieutenant said: ``Concentrate on your mission - that's the most important thing. I didn't realize that was so crucial until Operation Just Cause. I realized how many people were counting on me to accomplish that mission. Plus it helps you focus your attention. You don't think about getting shot as much.''
The gunner said he didn't pack anything to read on the weeks-long trip to the Gulf. Instead, the marines will be studying maneuvers and taking classes on desert survival.
``I've been told that we'll drink a one-quart canteen of water every 15 minutes'' in the 120-degree heat.
ONE marine, a graduate of Texas A&M University, said he is taking old letters from his girlfriend to reread since it will be weeks until he can get mail from her. ``She's an Aggie, too.''
General Powell shook hands with many of the departing marines and gave several pats on the shoulder. ``That's good,'' an officer remarked with satisfaction. ``Troops like that.'' Powell told reporters: ``They don't need a four-star general to come down and inspire them. They inspire me.''
The corporal gunner, reflecting on his phone call home, said his mother told him, ``This whole situation is in God's hands.'' ``I feel the same way,'' he said.