- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2003

SAN DIEGO, March 3 (UPI) — The aircraft carrier Nimitz set sail from the West Coast Monday to join the growing fleet of warships poised for action against Iraq.

The San Diego-based nuclear-powered carrier and its escort ships have orders to relieve the USS Abraham Lincoln, which is scheduled to head home in April after nearly a year at sea.

It will take the Nimitz battle group more than a month to reach the Persian Gulf region with its 70 aircraft, plus four cruisers and destroyers capable of launching lethal salvos of cruise missiles.

The battle group includes about 8,000 sailors and Marines who are scheduled to be away from San Diego for at least six months and might be called upon to remain in the Gulf indefinitely.

"It's been stressful knowing that I'll be leaving my family and not wanting to miss them," a Nimitz enlisted man named "Aaron" told San Diego television station KNSD as he arrived at North Island Naval Air Station with his wife, Kristina, and baby daughter, Melanie. "But, this is something I've wanted to do and that's why I'm here."

The young military wife told KNSD that their daughter would celebrate her first birthday without her doting dad while she would be managing the family's affairs on her own.

"Financially, we have to keep our bills organized and keep our money caught up," she said with an air of cautious confidence.

"Emotionally, you have friends there to support you and … to be there for you if you need them."

"I'm putting on a good poker face," she conceded. "I'm trying really hard not to cry, but it's hard."

Military spouses stoking the home fires in San Diego can turn to a number of military social service agencies for assistance. Like most Navy ships, the Nimitz has an "ombudsman" network that keeps the families in contact with one another — sharing news and encouragement, organizing get-togethers and helping one another over the rough spots.

Civilians in the San Diego area have pitched in with Operation Homefront, a volunteer group that offers military families assistance with a wide range of everyday needs, such as discounted car repairs, volunteers to help with moving and home repairs, and technical assistance with crashed computers that provide a coveted e-mail link with the deployed spouses.

"It's Murphy's Law. As soon as he walks out the door, something goes wrong," the organization's director, Sandra Aldridge, told The San Diego Union-Tribune. "If the wife is not a mechanic or a computer expert, it has to be sent out — and that costs a lot of money."

Such mundane crises seemed to worry the departing 5,500-member crew of the Nimitz Monday as much as the prospect of sailing into combat concerned the parents, spouses and sweethearts who sadly watched and bravely waved as the ship sailed off under the gray California sky.

And like the confidence the civilians had in the Nimitz, the departing crew had faith that all would be well until they returned home.

"They'll be OK," promised Petty Officer Patrick Chell. "They are all strong and will be able to take care of whatever needs to be done."


(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)

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