SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany – Wearing tan desert uniforms in the freezing cold, over 200 members of the Air Force's 52nd Fighter Wing lugged backpacks aboard a DC-10 jetliner Sunday deploying for a possible war with Iraq.
The troops' destination was secret, but if they do become involved in action in Iraq it will be familiar territory for the wing. Its pilots knocked out Iraqi air defenses in the 1991 Gulf War and have since helped enforce no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq.
Capt. Darren Gray has already fired his F-16 fighter plane's missiles at Iraqi defenses in the no-fly zone.
"It's never routine, with the heightened tensions right now, but it's something we've done before and we're ready to get the job done," said Gray, a native of Walnut Creek, Calif.
Sunday's deployment involved mostly ground personnel. Eventually 500 people from the wing and its F-16 fighter jets will be deployed to a classified destination under control of U.S. Central Command, which extends from Kazakhstan to the Horn of Africa and includes the Mideast.
The unit was on the move as news came that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered about 62,000 more U.S. troops to head for the Persian Gulf region in coming days, doubling the size of the force now arrayed on the periphery of Iraq.
The wing's departure also roughly coincided with Sunday's departure of the USS Ashland, one of seven U.S. Navy ships based in Virginia Beach, Va., receiving deployment orders in the past week. Two other ships are expected to follow.
The movements make clear that the Pentagon intends to have sufficient force in place for an Iraq war as early as the first weeks of February, although the White House says President Bush has not yet decided to attack.
With only a few days to prepare, the departing soldiers spent the last eight hours before leaving saying goodbye to loved ones, loading up equipment and hearing words of encouragement from their commanding officers.
"The job you do is a key part of our ability to project combat power," Wing Commander Col. Stephen Mueller told the assembled troops. "You are making a statement ... Saddam knows that you are on the way."
They watched the movie "Formula 51," starring Samuel A. Jackson, in an auditorium on base as they waited several hours for the chartered plane to arrive.
Buses then took them to the frigid runway where they shook hands with Mueller at the foot of the plane's ramp, grinning and laughing as they filed past.
The troops from the wing are among some 60,000 ordered by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld since Dec. 24 to move into place for a possible war against Iraq. Already some 60,000 troops are in the Persian Gulf region.
The F-16s, which will follow at an undisclosed date, can be used to knock out enemy anti-aircraft defenses with radar homing missiles -- typically the first blow struck -- as well as attack other planes or bomb targets on the ground.
The unit deployed with some members still wearing their normal issue dark green camouflage uniforms and will have to wait for the desert tan uniforms to catch up to them.
A few family members came to the post's midnight send-off. Some said tearful farewells to spouses or significant others. But the group, mostly in their early 20s, seemed loose and upbeat as they boarded.
"There's no casino down there, you can't lose any money," was one taunt overheard from well-wishers. One airman lugged a guitar up the ramp, another jammed his helmet on over a backward baseball cap.
Others had a tougher time saying goodbye. Airman 1st Class Jonathan Benker, 24, of Boston, is ready to go practice his specialty: keeping the jet's ejection seats in working order. But he's unhappy about leaving behind fiancee Autumn Thibodeau, 20, with a July wedding planned.
"I'm excited and upset at the same time -- I'm upset that I have to leave right at the beginning of, you know, us," said Benker.
Staff Sgt. Daphne Jaehn, 26, of Frederick, Md., had to leave behind her husband, Staff Sgt. Timothy Jaehn, 23, of San Diego, and their 14-month-old daughter. If Timothy Jaehn is deployed later, his parents will have to step in to care for the baby.
"I have to put my emotions aside," she said with tears in her eyes. "My little one's going to be grown up before I get back."