VIRGINIA 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.
On Saturday, at least one of the ships, 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, N.C., with an unknown number of Marines aboard.
On 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.
Cmdr. Sam Howard, the Ashland's commanding officer, said he was told to reposition the ship to support the president's global war on terrorism and to be prepared for future contingencies.
The Bataan and Kearsarge are 844 feet long and have a crew of about 1,070 sailors. Each also can carry a landing force of about 1,900 Marines.
The 609-foot Ashland has a crew of 410 sailors and can carry a detachment of up to 500 Marines, while the 360-foot Portland has a crew of 360 sailors and can carry about 330 Marines.
The Bataan last deployed to the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf on Sept. 19, 2001, and returned to Virginia last April. It was next scheduled to deploy in summer of 2004, Yerger, its commanding officer said.
"It's very likely we will do that, too," Yerger said.
The Ashland originally had been scheduled to deploy this summer, said Howard. Leaving about six months earlier than planned is tough on the sailors and their families, Howard acknowledged.
"I have a 7-month-old son and I was expecting to see him walk before I deployed," Howard said. "So there's the emotional aspect of it. But that's also balanced with the emotional aspect of doing something so important."