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Past, Present Merge as New Ship Sets Off

Centuries-old traditions, including tearful goodbyes, send the carrier Ronald Reagan on its first deployment.

January 05, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The ship was new and the sailors young, but the tradition was older than America.

With sailors in dress uniforms standing at parade rest Wednesday along the edge of the deck in a sign of respect -- a centuries-old seafaring tradition called "manning the rails" -- the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan edged away from the dock at North Island Naval Air Station.

Within minutes the big ship moved into the deep channel of San Diego Bay and soon rounded Ballast Point, slipping from sight, not to be home again for six months or longer.

Steve Merrill, a special education teacher from Fresno, was among the hundreds who gathered dockside at the Coronado base to wave goodbye.

Like the ship itself, Merrill's stepson, Ronnie Davis, 22, is making his first deployment, as are 60% of the 6,000-member crew.

Many members are barely a year out of high school and now in charge of moving expensive warplanes around a deafening, dangerous, four-acre deck.

"You know," Merrill said, "people criticize the public schools, and certainly they could use some improvement. But those are public school students on that ship.

"We send them out to protect the country, and they do a very good job of it," he said as he watched sailors obeying the classic call to "cast off all lines."

It was a morning for private thoughts and public tears. This, too, is a tradition of sorts, a ritual that has been played out as long as sailors have gone to sea.

"The Navy's been good to us, but this is the rough part," said a tearful Michele Kulin, 43, as she made a final cellphone call to her husband, Chief Petty Officer Jeff Kulin, 40. This is his fifth deployment.

"We've got 11 more months, and then he's" retired, she said. "Just 11 months."

For some couples it will be the last enforced separation. For others, the first of many.

Jessica Torok, 19, was married Friday to sailor Jeffrey Torok, 24, in a civil ceremony. The couple enjoyed a weekend honeymoon in San Francisco, but a church wedding will have to wait until the deployment is finished and he's back at his base at Point Mugu.

"I'm not sure what it's going to be like, just that it's going to be hard," Jessica said as her eyes filled with tears and she started to shiver slightly in the morning chill.

Command Master Chief Jim Delozier, 39, said the first few days at sea can be the most difficult for younger crew members. He's making his ninth deployment in 22 years in the Navy and is the senior enlisted man aboard the Reagan.

"We keep a close eye on the young ones and do a lot of counseling," he said. "The chaplains are ready."

Except to say the ship is part of a carrier strike group being sent to the western Pacific, the Navy does not officially announce the Reagan's destination.

But it is an open secret among family members that the Persian Gulf is one destination, where the 80 warplanes can fly missions over Iraq.

Mikel Pickens, 24, a cook, nearly missed the boat as he and his wife, Heather, 20, got a late start. At the gate, Pickens could not find his identification card. Heather ran back to the car to look.

Finally the missing card was found, they had a last kiss and he disappeared without a backward look.

"Your life revolves around e-mail when they're gone," Heather said. "You wake up, you check the e-mail. You go to the store, you check e-mail when you get back. It's always e-mail."

Katie Phillips, 21, said she'll be "a wreck" until she hears from her boyfriend, sailor Christopher Conrad, 20.

"The first couple of days are awful before you get an e-mail," she said, her eyes red and swollen. "Then it gets easier, at least a little bit."

Commissioned in 2003, the Reagan is the Navy's newest carrier. Since it arrived in San Diego in July 2004, the crew has been undergoing virtually constant drills and tests to gauge the seaworthiness of both crew and ship.

"It's been a steady, steep ramp-up to get us combat ready," said the ship's commanding officer, Capt. Terry B. Kraft.

But the ship and crew are only some of the Navy's concerns.

Part of the "pre-deployment schedule" has been preparing family members with lectures and support groups. A restricted-access website will keep them updated about the Reagan's progress.

"It never gets easier for the families," Kraft said. "We prepare them as much as we can."

The guided-missile cruiser Lake Champlain and the guided-missile destroyers McCampbell and Decatur also left San Diego as part of the Reagan's strike group. The submarine Tucson from Pearl Harbor and support ship Rainier from Bremerton, Wash., will join the group in mid-ocean.

Frank Leech, 56, an Army veteran of Vietnam, stood on the shore at Shelter Island, waving his American flag. He knows none of the sailors, but he had to be there.

"I want them to know that someone cares," he said quietly as the Reagan moved slowly toward the open sea.

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