- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

SAN DIEGO, Jan. 17 (UPI) — Scores of Marines dressed in desert camouflage crowded the decks of seven amphibious transports Friday for one last look at the shore as a task force of 10,000 leathernecks and Navy sailors got under way from San Diego to join the growing military force assembling in the Persian Gulf.

Family and friends left behind by the short-notice deployment of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force waved and cheered from the docks as the warships, packed with troops, helicopters and supplies, sailed one-by-one out of San Diego Bay under a cloudless sky and bright sun that quickly evaporated the pre-dawn chill that had greeted many of the well-wishers who had arrived early.

The task force will spend the next two days off the coast of northern San Diego County to take on additional supplies and gear from Camp Pendleton as well as a unit of Marine Harrier jets before starting a voyage that will bring the force into the Persian Gulf in four to six weeks.

"We're finally going to be able to go and do what we've been trained to do for quite a while now," Chief Petty Officer Mark Bjornson told reporters as he reported for duty aboard the USS Boxer, the flagship of the amphibious squadron. "I hope we'll be able to get this over with and not have to do it again."

Increasing numbers of U.S. regulars and reservists have been mobilized for duty in the Gulf region as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

The destroyer USS O'Kane left Pearl Harbor for an undisclosed location Friday while 250 members of a Marine radio battalion in Hawaii were given orders to shove off "in the near future."

The troops expect they will be taking part in a massive attack on Iraq rather than chasing al Qaida and Taliban guerillas in Afghanistan.

"I'm set for whatever we have to do," enthused Tee Ivey, a youthful Marine lance corporal.

Another Marine, Pfc. Antoine Walker, said he also wasn't sure what to expect, although he and his buddies had been inundated with speculation and high anxiety about the mission for several weeks.

"There's been a lot of anticipation," he told San Diego television station KNSD. "You don't know if what happens is a drill or if it's for real, but you have to be ready."

Several hundred Marines from Camp Pendleton are already in the Gulf and another force of 2,200 Marines left San Diego earlier this month aboard three ships; the San Diego-based carrier Constellation is on station in Gulf.

Friday's deployment was the fastest single troop departure from San Diego since the Korean War and no return date has been set for the troops, which has many family members more anxious than they might be during a normal deployment that would last around six months.

"Its tougher for us this time because this is going to be Ryan's first time with dad gone so long," Bjornson's wife, Colleen, told Los Angeles station KNBC said as she held the couple's sleepy 3-year-old son.

The prospect of protracted warfare in Iraq has mobilized the nation's peace movement. Major rallies against the war were scheduled Saturday in Washington and in San Francisco, where police predicted a crowd of 50,000. A small demonstration in downtown Los Angeles Thursday resulted in the arrest of 17 protestors who refused to clear the sidewalk in front of the federal building.

Although protests have increasingly equated the U.S. pressure on Saddam as being motivated by Iraq's oil reserves, the men and women who set sail from San Diego Friday appeared not to be troubled by the insinuation that they might be on the short end of a trade of blood for oil.

"I have a personal message," said Navy Capt. Kenny Golden, the commander of the amphibious squadron. "I've been all over the world and have seen places where you can't protest."

"I think they have a right to protest and I think they are patriots," Golden told reporters before taking his post on the Boxer. "They are concerned, just like we are (about the conflict); we just disagree on how to take care of it."


(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)

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