BALTIMORE – Amid a swirl of snow flurries, the hospital ship USNS Comfort left Monday morning to aid in a possible war in Iraq.
About 50 crew members leaned over the railings of the Comfort as tugboats eased the ship out of the Port of Baltimore about 9:20 a.m. One crew member threw a snowball off the ship.
On the pier, a handful of family members remained to wave farewell. Jeanette Ward, 35, said it was hard to say goodbye to her husband, clinical engineer Morgan Ward. She said she had similar feelings when he was overseas for nine months during the Gulf War
"It was hard -- you didn't know what was going to happen," she said.
On Sunday, snow fell steadily on the crew, bathing the east Baltimore docks in white as sailors and medical staffers boarded the massive, whitewashed ship painted with huge, red crosses.
Buses from Navy medical centers pulled up to the fenced-off pier, unloading 30 to 40 crew members at a time. The crew includes about 300 Navy personnel and 61 civilian mariners.
Jason Sully said a tearful goodbye to his wife, Melanie, on Sunday.
"More than anything, just being gone is going to be hardest. The only thing I can do is expect the worst and hope for the best," said Sully, 30, an electronics technician from Chesapeake, Va.
The 1,000-bed Comfort is readying for duty at the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. It has 12 operating rooms and is equipped to handle troops injured in biological and chemical attacks.
The Comfort last deployed for war during the Gulf war of 1990 and 1991. It also sailed to New York to assist emergency crews after the collapse of the World Trade Center.
Since Christmas, the Pentagon has begun alerting units around the United States and overseas to prepare for deployment as possible 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 in January.
In Savannah, Ga., two combat brigades from they Army's 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) were preparing to join the unit's other combat brigade in the region. If the area becomes a war zone, military analysts say, the unit will play a leading role.
"The decisive element here, I think, is going to be the 3rd Mech.," said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit defense policy group. "All those Abrams and Bradleys showing up on the outskirts of Baghdad, that is going to convince the Iraqi people that Saddam's end is at hand."
The members of the 3rd Infantry Division packed their bags last week after the Pentagon alerted them that deployment was imminent. The precise departure date has not been announced. One of the division's combat brigades had been sent to Kuwait in September.
The 3rd Infantry, which will have up to 17,000 troops in the Persian Gulf region, specializes in desert warfare and has a special focus on the Middle East. Many of its senior soldiers are veterans of the Gulf War 12 years ago.
At Fort Bragg in North Carolina, soldiers preparing to go overseas were doing some post-holiday shopping -- for boots, knives, warm-weather gear and anything else that might come in handy on the battlefield.
"I really need cold-weather socks," said Spc. Lee Tibbetts, 28, who leaves for Afghanistan this week with the 2nd Battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Gloves, flashlights, goggles, binoculars and compasses have been selling rapidly in recent weeks at General Jackson's, a store that sells military gear.