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Ships Leave East Coast as U.S. Builds Up Forces

Four of the seven Virginia-based Navy ships that have received deployment orders in the past week headed out to sea Sunday as a military buildup continued ahead of a possible war with Iraq.

The amphibious dock landing ships Portland and Ashland set sail from the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, and the amphibious assault ships Kearsarge and Bataan left Norfolk Naval Station.

The ships and three others that left Friday can carry a total landing force of about 8,000 Marines.

As the Ashland pulled away from its dock, a couple dozen family members waved from a cold, wind-swept parking lot.

Kerri Rodriguez wiped away tears as she said goodbye to her husband, Petty Officer 2nd Class Edgar Rodriguez. She doesn't know when she and their three children will see him next.

"It's their job. If they've got to go, they've got to go," she 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."

Elsewhere, the amphibious dock landing ship USS Gunston Hall headed out to sea from Morehead City, N.C. A Marine spokeswoman, Capt. Kelly Frushour, said she did not know how many troops were aboard the amphibious dock landing ship.

The Ashland hadn't been scheduled to deploy until this summer. Leaving six months early is tough on the sailors and their families, said Cmdr. Sam Howard, the ship's commanding officer.

"I have a 7-month old son and I was expecting to see him walk before I deployed," Howard said.

"There's the emotional aspect of it," he said. "But that's also balanced with the emotional aspect of doing something so important."

The Navy declined to say where the ships were headed.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has ordered more than 60,000 U.S. troops to head for the Persian Gulf region, a move that will double the size of the force already in the area. The Pentagon's goal is to have at least 100,000 there by Jan. 31.