- The Washington Times - Monday, January 13, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH Alison Beale and Katherine Hinson sat in a pickup truck together watching the USS Portland slowly pull away from the pier at the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach.
Mrs. Beale, 25, of Gastonia, N.C., and Mrs. Hinson, 19, of Rock Hill, S.C., both recently married sailors aboard the Portland, one of four Navy ships from Hampton Roads that deployed yesterday on short notice to undisclosed destinations.
The women said they were worried because the ship could become involved if war breaks out between the United States and Iraq.
Mrs. Beale told her husband, Alan Beale, a 22-year-old machinists' mate, "You've got my heart, and you're taking it with you to Iraq. Please be very safe with it and bring it back to me."
She added, "He's all I've got."
The Portland, an amphibious-dock landing ship, was one of four ships to leave Virginia on Sunday. Another amphibious-dock landing ship, the USS Ashland, left Little Creek in the morning. Amphibious-assault ships USS Kearsarge and USS Bataan left Norfolk Naval Station at about 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. respectively.
The four ships followed three amphibious ships, capable of carrying a total of more than 3,000 Marines, that left Hampton Roads on Friday with orders to deploy. On Saturday at least one was in Morehead City, N.C., taking on contingents of Marines from Camp Lejeune.
On Sunday buses brought about 1,000 Marines to Norfolk from Camp Lejeune to board the Bataan.
Capt. Earle S. Yerger, the Bataan's commanding officer, said it is not unusual for Marines to board the ship in Norfolk but that typically the ship would go to North Carolina to get them.
"This is a very efficient way to get a whole bunch of people on board the ship," he said. "If we had to load them at sea, we would have to take some different equipment."
Mr. Yerger said he did not know whether the ship would sail to the Middle East. "We've been ordered to sea," he said.
Command Master Chief Bob Stocklin, the top enlisted sailor aboard the Portland, said the crew learned Friday that its ship would deploy Sunday. The Portland came back Dec. 6 from a four-month deployment to South America and was not scheduled to deploy again until June 2004, he said.
Mr. Stocklin said the Portland was headed to Morehead City, presumably to pick up Marines because that is the ship's usual procedure. He did not know where the ship would go after that nor how long it would be gone.
"We're kind of getting our schedule one day at a time," said Mr. Stocklin, 41, of Corpus Christi, Texas.
Earlier Sunday, a couple dozen family members of the Ashland's crew waved from a cold, wind-swept parking lot as the ship left Little Creek. Others sat in their cars to watch the ship get under way.
Kerri Rodriguez wiped away tears after saying goodbye to her husband, Petty Officer 2nd Class Edgar Rodriguez. She and other family members said they had learned in the past couple weeks that the Ashland would be leaving Sunday.
"It's their job,' she said. "If they've got to go, they've got to go. I'm just very proud of him that he has the opportunity to serve his country and bring a lot of pride and honor to his family."
The sailors do not know how long they will be gone.
"It's the Navy. You know what you're getting into," said Mrs. Rodriguez, 25, of Virginia Beach, who was at the base with her three small children.
The Ashland had been scheduled to deploy this summer, said Cmdr. Sam Howard, the ship's commanding officer. Leaving about six months earlier than planned is tough on the sailors and their families, Mr. Howard said.
"I have a 7-month-old son and was expecting to see him walk before I deployed," he said. "So there's the emotional aspect of it. But that's also balanced with the emotional aspect of doing something so important."
The Navy has declined to say where the ships are headed. A Navy spokesman also declined to say whether the sudden deployment orders for the ships were related to plans to double the size of the military force on the periphery of Iraq.
Senior U.S. officials said Saturday that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has ordered about 62,000 more U.S. troops to head for the Persian Gulf region in coming days, a sign that the Pentagon intends to have sufficient force in place for an Iraq war by the first weeks of February.
Mr. Howard said he was told to reposition the Ashland to support the president's global war on terrorism and to be prepared for future contingencies.
The Bataan and Kearsarge are 844 feet long and have crews of about 1,070 sailors. Each also can carry a landing force of about 1,900 Marines.
The 609-foot Ashland has a crew of 410 sailors and can carry a detachment of as many as 500 Marines, and the 360-foot Portland has a crew of 360 sailors and can carry about 330 Marines.
The Bataan last deployed to the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf on Sept. 19, 2001, and returned to Virginia last April.

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