- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 1, 2003

NORFOLK (AP) Chief Petty Officer Homer Elam waited until after Christmas to tell his son and daughter he might have to ship out to the Middle East soon because "some stuff needs to be taken care of."

Jonathan, 11, looked upset at the news, but Megan, 13, was more stoic.

"I won't get much of a reaction from her as far as disappointment," the Navy chief said. "It's been a way of life for our family, me coming in and out of the house, me not being much around at all. She's just used to it."

After 17 years in the Navy and nine deployments, Chief Petty Officer Elam, 37, had been looking forward to four years of onshore duty with no more long separations from his wife and children, then retirement, when the aircraft carrier USS George Washington returned to Norfolk Naval Station on Dec. 20.

With his transfer to Millington, Tenn., approved for Feb. 2, Chief Petty Officer Elam and his wife, Deborah, headed there to start looking for homes.

But Chief Petty Officer Elam, along with 7,500 other sailors and Marines from the carrier and its battle group, have been told to be ready to ship out within 96 hours should they receive the order.

Since Christmas, the Pentagon has begun alerting units around the United States and overseas to prepare for deployment as the threat of war with Iraq looms. The Navy has been ordered to prepare two aircraft carrier battle groups and two amphibious assault groups to be ready to head to the region sometime this month.

The Elams are spending the holidays in Birmingham, Ala., with relatives, waiting for their next move.

"We don't know when they're going to say the clock has started," Chief Petty Officer Elam said Monday. "With the uncertainty, it could change a lot of people's plans, a lot of people's destinations."

"It's the uncertainty that's hard," Mrs. Elam added. "That's where a good Navy wife has to balance things, because that's how our life is. Their job is for our country. If they weren't out there, what kind of lives would we have? That's what I have to think about. I think all the time about how much this world has changed."

The George Washington has not received orders to deploy but has been on standby since its return, said Cmdr. Ernest Duplessis, spokesman for the Navy's 2nd Fleet.

The Navy routinely designates a carrier that has just returned from deployment as a "surge carrier," meaning it must be ready to respond quickly should the need arise, Cmdr. Duplessis said. Because of the George Washington and five other ships' recent return from six months in the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean regions, they are considered the best-prepared for action.

"I hope it doesn't go down," Chief Petty Officer Elam said from his mother-in-law's home in Birmingham. "We all hope it doesn't go down. But if we have to, we know we're prepared. The people are geared up. We've been doing that exact job for the last six months, so who better to send to the tip of the spear than those who have been there?"

The George Washington group is expected to remain on call until sometime this month, when another Norfolk-based carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, will become the surge carrier so the George Washington can enter a shipyard for maintenance.

The timing couldn't be worse for the Elams.

Though the transfer still is planned, "things could change any minute," Chief Petty Officer Elam said. "That's why we turned around. We couldn't make any commitment on our end in Tennessee."

The Elams returned to Birmingham, where they had celebrated Christmas with Mrs. Elam's mother and brother.

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