Virginia-based ships leave port as deployment of military force

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

The Associated PressVIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Petty Officer 2nd Class Edgar Rodriguez and his wife, Kerri, know that deployment with little warning is part of Navy life. But that didn't make saying goodbye any easier when he joined fellow sailors aboard the USS Ashland.

"It's their job. If they've got to go, they've got to go," Kerri Rodriguez said. "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 Ashland was among four ships that deployed Sunday from Virginia to undisclosed locations, as a possible war with Iraq loomed. The ships and three others that left Friday can carry a total landing force of about 8,000 Marines.

Rodriguez and other family members said they had learned only within the last couple of weeks that the Ashland, an amphibious dock landing ship, would be leaving Sunday.

The sailors don't know how long they will be gone.

"It's the Navy. You know what you're getting into," said Rodriguez, 25, of Virginia Beach, who was at the base with her three small children. "This is our life."

The Ashland and the dock landing ship USS Portland set off from Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach. Two amphibious assault ships, the USS Kearsarge and the USS Bataan, left Norfolk Naval Station. They followed three amphibious ships that left from Hampton Roads on Friday.

Early Monday morning, an undisclosed number of soldiers from the Army's 7th Transportation Group based at Fort Eustis in Newport News departed. The soldiers were all from the 89th Transportation Company, which is part of the group, said Vicki Newberry, a public affairs staffer at Fort Eustis.

She said another group of soldiers would be heading out from Fort Story in Virginia Beach on Monday afternoon. She declined to say where either group was going.

On Saturday, at least one of the three ships that left Friday, the USS Ponce, was in Morehead City, N.C., taking on Marines from Camp Lejeune. A second ship, the USS Gunston Hall, headed out to sea Sunday from Morehead City with an unknown number of Marines aboard.

Also 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 he did not know whether the ship ultimately will 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 found out Friday that their ship would deploy Sunday. The Portland just came back Dec. 6 from a four-month deployment to South America and was not scheduled to leave again until June 2004, Stocklin said.

Stocklin said the Portland was headed to Morehead City, presumably to pick up Marines, because that is the ship's usual procedure. He said he did not know where the ship would go after that or how long it would be gone.

"We're kind of getting our schedule one day at a time," said Stocklin, 41, of Corpus Christi, Texas.

A Navy spokesman declined to say whether the sudden deployment orders for the ships were related to plans to double the size of the military force now 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 early February.

Meanwhile, Fort Bragg in North Carolina received orders over the weekend to send about 5,000 soldiers to the Persian Gulf region, including a brigade combat team of as many as 4,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, a post spokesman said Monday.

A statement issued Sunday said the soldiers were being sent "to support the global war on terrorism," but the post wouldn't say exactly where the soldiers would go.

"These troops will now be doing what they need to do to get ready -- immunizations, classes, getting their families ready," said Maj. Gary Tallman, a Fort Bragg spokesman.

------Associated Press Military Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.

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