Thousands of Marines, sailors and soldiers headed for the Persian Gulf region Monday, shipping out from California, Georgia and Maryland as the buildup for a possible war with Iraq accelerated sharply.
"I'm worried. I'm also proud," K.C. Lindberg said moments after saying goodbye to her son, a 23-year-old machinist's mate in the Navy who set sail from San Diego on the USS Tarawa. "I'm going to miss him a whole lot and we don't know what's ahead. But he's going out there to protect you and me."
President Bush has threatened to attack Iraq if it does not eliminate its weapons of mass destruction as required by U.N. resolutions adopted after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Pentagon has indicated it plans to deploy as many as 250,000 soldiers in the Gulf region; at least 50,000 are already there.
More than 10,000 Army soldiers in Georgia were expected to leave Fort Benning and Fort Stewart over the next week. The troops are from the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), which specializes in desert warfare and is expected to have all 17,000 soldiers and support staff in the region eventually.
About 350 soldiers from the division boarded buses Monday evening for a 2Y-hour drive to Robins Air Force Base to catch their first flight. Valorie Torbert hugged her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Torbert while their two sons, Jonathan, 7, and Alexander, 11, ran around.
"We just do what we've got to do with the belief that they're coming back real soon," she said. "I'm glad he's going, he's going for all the right reasons. This is his job, I knew that when I married him."
Many of the division's troops are Desert Storm veterans, but Spc. Derante Moody, 23, was a teenager at the time.
"I'm kind of nervous, but I've got confidence in my peers," Moody said. "We've trained together and lived together for months."
Moody's family left Killeen, Texas, when he called Saturday to say he was headed overseas. They arrived at 2 a.m. Monday.
"I hope they pull everyone back," said his mother, Valery Moody. "I'm scared, he's nervous but he's trying to cover it up."
Swirling snow fell in Baltimore as the Navy's giant floating hospital ship USNS Comfort left for the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. The 1,000-bed ship has 12 operating rooms and is equipped to handle troops injured in biological and chemical attacks.
While most families said their goodbyes Sunday, a few braved snow flurries to catch a final glimpse of their loved ones from the pier. Jeanette Ward, 35, couldn't pass up another chance to see husband Morgan Ward, a clinical engineer who came down from the ship to greet her.
"He told me I look pretty and that he loves me," said Jeanette Ward, whose husband also shipped off for nine months during the Gulf War.
Chrystina Starr, 31, brought her two children, ages 2 and 4, to say goodbye to her husband, First Engineer Stephen Starr.
"This is hard," she said, fighting back tears as she clutched 2-year-old Connor. "We don't know how long he'll be gone."
The Comfort last deployed for war during Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991. It also sailed to New York after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
In San Diego, 4,000 Marines and sailors set sail on a six-month voyage that will put them within striking distance of Iraq. Family members wiped away tears and waved to loved ones standing behind the rails of the USS Tarawa some 20 stories above the pier.
The ship, which should reach the gulf sometime next month, is carrying the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which saw action in Afghanistan a year ago. Three members of the unit received Purple Hearts after they were wounded in a land mine explosion.
"We're prepared to do whatever needs to be done," said Col. Thomas Waldhauser, commanding officer of the 15th MEU. "That's why we joined the service."
Being ready doesn't make leaving home any easier.
"It's hard every time," Cpl. Rafael Avalos, 27, said as he cradled his 2-year-old brother, who was sipping milk. "It never gets easier."
The Tarawa, bristling with six Harrier attack jets and a squadron of helicopters, is second in size only to an aircraft carrier. In the gulf, it will join the USS Constellation, a carrier that earlier left San Diego with 8,000 sailors and Marines in a seven-ship battle group.
Juan Daniel Garcia, a 20-year-old Navy aviation support technician, said he was grateful for the chance to see his 2-week-old son, Jahir, before he left.
"It was two weeks, but it mattered," he said.
Jim Carver made the trip from Pennsylvania to see off his 21-year-old son, Joshua, a corporal with Force Recon, the Marine equivalent of Navy SEALs or Army Green Berets.
Carver shared the same mixture of pride and concern as others in the crowd, but the 51-year-old Methodist minister was at a loss to explain how all three of his sons joined the military.
"That's their form of rebellion," he said.
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