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Nimitz, With 5,500 Sailors, Gets Emotional Send-Off to the Gulf

Families cheer carrier as it starts six-month deployment. Officers don't discuss Iraq, say they're part of fight against terrorism.

March 04, 2003|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — It was a moment they expected. The wives, husbands, children, parents, grandparents. It was also a moment they dreaded.

Just before 9:30 Monday morning, they watched as 5,500 men and women aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz left Coronado and headed to the Persian Gulf for a six-month deployment. Speakers blasted the song "Hero" from the "Spider-Man" soundtrack. A shout of "God Bless the Nimitz!" brought applause and cheers.

Standing at the pier as the massive gray ship pulled away from the North Island Naval Air Station, family members wiped away tears and waved to the sailors in uniform lining the deck. They proudly held American flags and posters: "We love you, Daddy," and "Give 'Em Hell." A few blew kisses.

For some gathered under cloudy skies Monday morning, the deployments were all too familiar. Others weren't so used to saying goodbye.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Nimitz deployment -- A photo caption on A1 and an article in the California section March 4 about the aircraft carrier Nimitz misspelled the name of one of the ship's air traffic controllers. Her name is Candice James, not Candace James.

"We didn't want this day to come," said Marcelino Orosco, whose 22-year-old son, Esteban, was deploying overseas for the first time. "If I could take his place, I would."

Like many of the departing sailors, Orosco was more enthusiastic about the deployment than his family was. "It's hard leaving," said Orosco, carrying a photograph of himself with his parents and grandmother. "But I've been waiting for this day for a long time."

The nuclear-powered Nimitz, carrying 70 combat and support aircraft, is accompanied by a battle group of escort ships and expected to arrive in the Persian Gulf by the end of March. Four San Diego-based ships will be joined by two ships from Washington state and one from Hawaii. Altogether, more than 8,000 sailors are assigned to the Nimitz, which last deployed in 1997 before being sent to Virginia for a three-year refueling and overhaul.

The Navy officers shied away from talking about the possibility of war with Iraq and said vaguely that their job is to support the global war on terrorism. But the officers said the troops know they are deploying for a purpose and are eager to go.

"The morale and the spirit of the sailors is higher than I've ever seen it," said Capt. Charles Martoglio, sea combat commander for the Nimitz battle group. "This is a dedicated force, it's a smart force, it's a motivated force and it's a ready force."

The Nimitz, which has a 4.5-acre flight deck, can launch modern military aircraft and "strikes against adversaries," Martoglio said. Several of the escort ships can fire Tomahawk cruise missiles. Troops aboard the carrier are trained in several operations, including undersea warfare, maritime interdiction, air strikes and support missions, and search and rescue.

During their free time, the troops can work out in one of three gyms, watch closed-circuit television, go to the library and, of course, e-mail their families.

Candace James, an air traffic controller, said she is counting on e-mails and electronic photographs to keep tabs on her three daughters and the activities she will miss: Girl Scout meetings, cheerleading and chorus recitals.

"When you're gone a long time, you come back and they look totally different," said James, 43, whose husband is a chief air controller with the Navy. "I don't want that to happen."

James has deployed three previous times and acknowledged that she is especially fearful about this mission. "It's a very dangerous operation.... The odds of us coming back with everyone [alive] are against us," she said.

Her daughters, ages 9, 11 and 13, are scared, too. "She's the coolest mom I know," said the eldest, Kristi. "But I worry about the war and if she's going to be OK." Kristi said she and her sisters decorated their mom's office on board the ship with stenciled drawings of their hands.

As she hugged her daughters tightly, James said through tears, "I'm sorry, girls."

Kristi replied, "Don't be sorry, Mom."

Also at the pier was Heather Shaft, who turns 24 today and came out Monday to say goodbye to her husband, David. The couple, who got married Nov. 23, spent every moment together for the last few days.

Petty Officer 2nd Class David Shaft said his job is easy -- he just gets on the boat and does what he is told to do. His wife, he said, is the one left with taking care of the bills and the house.

"She's got the toughest job of all," he said.

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