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CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- The U.S. Marines stormed a North Carolina beach yesterday, trying to capture a port and airfield from a formidable foe. The foe was the U.S. Marines.

For the 1,500 to 2,000 Americans who waged the nighttime amphibious assault, the "war games" will soon be over. Heavily armed and trained, they are the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), scheduled in one month to begin churning toward the Balkans.

If the war in the former Yugoslavia finally draws in the United States, these Marines would likely be among the first into the fire.

"I don't think you'll find anybody who really wants to go to war," said 1st Lt. Amy Karam, 24, from Gaithersburg, who manages a crew of aircraft mechanics deployed aboard the USS Wasp. "But we're Marines. This is what we do."

The amphibious landing, launched yesterday, shortly after midnight, was the culmination of 18 days of intensive joint training for more than 18,000 members of the country's armed forces. The landing at the Marines' Camp Lejeune, though, was an exercise mainly for the 26th MEU. Journalists were invited to accompany the Marines ashore.

Navy Vice Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. met with the journalists in Norfolk, Va., before they were flown to join the invasion force on ships in the Atlantic Ocean. He stressed that the Marines were not "a Bosnian contingency force" but said they could perform every mission likely to be needed in Bosnia.

The United States appears to be on the verge of increasing its involvement in the war-torn country -- either by stepping up airstrikes against the advancing Serbs or by sending in U.S. troops to help evacuate United Nations peacekeepers.

As they prepared for yesterday's mock invasion, many Marines said they believed that recent exercises were designed for Bosnia. They spoke aboard the USS Wasp, an amphibious-assault ship that carries helicopters and Harriers, jets that can take off vertically.

"Everything we've been training for has been for Bosnia -- long-range raids, destruction raids, that sort of thing," said Sgt. Ray Rodriguez, 26, of New York. "Kind of like when you were a kid. Get in, make your hit, get out."

But that wouldn't be a kid's game. The grown-ups in enemy uniforms shoot real bullets. Sergeant Rodriguez said: "But we shoot real bullets, too."

His face was a swirl of green, black and brown camouflage paint. He sweated in torrents, as did everyone in the steamy belly of the smelly Wasp. Sergeant Rodriguez commands four Humvees, including one driven by a Marine from Baltimore, Lance Cpl. Bolivia Villanova. He is 22, grew up in Mount Washington and has yet to see action.

"We are the next ones going over," Corporal Villanova said. "So if something's going to happen, we're the ones who'll take care of it."

He said his fellow Marines all follow the news from Bosnia.

"It's wrong when people kill women and children," he said of reported atrocities by the Serbs. "If we need a force to go over there and correct the situation, yes, I think we should. I'm not saying we should institute an all-out war, but I think we should help people who can't help themselves."

The Marines paused for interviews as activity around the ship increased. Everyone was going somewhere or doing something, scurrying through the cramped spaces like prairie dogs underground.

Staff Sgt. Robert Lockard, 30, is from Havre de Grace. He's a helicopter mechanic who quickly gives his nifty definition of the Marine Corps:

"We're the 911 force for America. If called, we go -- no matter where. I signed up to enforce and defend. I didn't sign up to debate the politics."

Lance Cpl. Frank Davis, 22, is from Denton. He's also a helicopter mechanic.

"We're doing our exercises as if we're going to Bosnia," he said. "We just might end up going into a hostile situation. I was prepared for that when I signed the contract. I'll do my best. I'll give it my all."

But now, the Marines who could soon fight for real began fighting for practice. Crammed with troops and equipment, the first air-cushioned landing crafts left the ships shortly before midnight. The plan was complex. Timing was crucial.

Problems occurred early. Two landing crafts experienced mechanical problems, and the plan was revised. Landing crafts scheduled for departure remained on the ships. So did most of the journalists.

The sun came up. Helicopters carried the journalists to shore about 7 a.m. The beach was quiet, but lots had happened overnight.

Artillery pieces had been set up. Jeeps with bushes on their hoods and 5-ton trucks packed full disappeared into the scrub brush. Marines with M-16s and painted faces glared ferociously. A few plain buildings stood here and there; they hardly seemed worth the trouble.

"Enemy" troops hid among trees. Their tanks rumbled into position. Helicopters whizzed overheard.

Much was going on, but little was clear -- except that when both sides of the "fight" are from the same side, it doesn't matter who wins.

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