SAN DIEGO — At age 9, Brittany Shaw knows what her father does for a living and why. But that does not make it easier for her.
"He's going to sea for six months so he can help save the world," said Brittany, her tiny voice quivering slightly. "I'm upset because he'll be gone. It's hard on us."
This morning, Brittany's father, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris Shaw, leaves San Diego aboard the amphibious assault ship Tarawa for a six-month deployment in the Western Pacific -- most likely in the Persian Gulf.
He is one of 4,000 troops -- 2,000 sailors from San Diego and 2,000 combat Marines from Camp Pendleton -- who will deploy aboard the Tarawa, the Duluth and the Rushmore.
In thousands of homes Sunday, final goodbyes were said, legal documents signed, contingency plans arranged and promises made.
The goodbyes are made more poignant by the fact that the sailors and Marines may be headed to a war zone. The Marines have been there before.
As part of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, they were the first conventional U.S. troops sent into Afghanistan and are likely to be sent to Kuwait as the U.S. prepares for a possible ground offensive against Iraq.
For Chris Shaw, 30, and his wife, Nadine, 31, who both grew up in Pleasanton, Calif, this is his third overseas deployment in their 10-year marriage.
Despite the availability of Navy counseling and support groups, even a Christmas party sponsored by the Tarawa for the crew and their family members, there are limits to how much can be done to alleviate the stress of a military deployment, anxiety with little equivalent in civilian life. "It never gets easier," Nadine Shaw said. "I still get that weak-in-the-stomach, want-to-throw-up feeling, despite how many deployments he's been on."
In a separate move, three California National Guard units from Northern California were mobilized last week as part of the country's war on terrorism. An additional 80 guardsmen were called up and 600 others attached to a division in Southern California were told that such an order is imminent.
Several hundred Marines from Camp Pendleton have been in Kuwait since November, and an unspecified number are expected to join them in the coming weeks.
"I have faith in the [Tarawa] captain that he will try to protect them, and faith in President Bush that he's not just going to throw them into something," Nadine Shaw said.
The Shaws spent Thanksgiving with their extended family, but Christmas was more intimate. There was a family trip to Disneyland and, late last week, the children were left with a sitter so the parents could enjoy dinner at Outback Steakhouse and see the new James Bond movie. "We tried to have family time," Chris Shaw said.
This morning, Nadine Shaw and the children -- Allison, 4; Christopher, 8; and Brittany -- will be dockside at the 32nd Street Naval Station along with hundreds of other family members. By experience, Nadine Shaw knows that some of the younger spouses -- alone for the first time -- will almost immediately need support.
"The younger wives don't have a clue about the emotional roller coaster they're going to have," Nadine Shaw said.
She remembers her terrified children asking, "Is it Daddy's ship?" when they heard that a ship had been attacked by terrorists in October 2000. Only hours later did they learn it was the destroyer Cole, not the Tarawa, which was several hundred miles away. "The waiting is hard because you don't know what tomorrow will bring," she said.
Chris Shaw will stay in touch by e-mail and occasional "sailor-phone" calls at $1 per minute. And as an aircraft technician who helps launch and recover helicopters and vertical-lift Harriers, he will be busy.
"This is the worst and best of my job," he said. "It's the worst because I have to leave my family, but it's the best because I get to go defend my country."