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N.C. Troops Load Up, Head Out

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N.C.'S MILITARY INSTALLATIONS — Packing orders from the Pentagon had a big impact on North Carolina Saturday - especially at Camp Lejeune, where 2,500 Marines left for the Persian Gulf.

The Defense Department had ordered nearly 35,000 U.S. troops to deploy for a possible showdown with Saddam Hussein. So, in the early morning hours Saturday, North Carolina's military men and women said goodbye to their families.

By 2 p.m., the first wave of a 7,000-Marine task force from Camp Lejeune, bound for the Persian Gulf region, boarded ships for deployment that a commander said could last a year.

Marines waved and saluted to a crowd onshore from the deck of the Norfolk, Va.-based USS Ponce as two tugboats pushed the ship out to sea.

Activity started Saturday long before the sun came out at bases across North Carolina - beginning when a group of planes that could be described as Hussein's worst nightmare took to the air from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

An undisclosed number of airmen left Seymour Johnson for the Middle East. Their families stayed up all night to see them off.

The fighters were accompanied by large refueling planes. They wouldn't say where they're going, but the Air Force's most versatile fighter jets seem to find their way to the action.

The F-15e Strike Eagle was considered the best fighter in the Air Force during operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. The jet has been upgraded since then, and the airmen at Seymour Johnson said before they left Saturday that they're ready to put the jet to the test one more time.

Tearful goodbyes also occurred Saturday morning at Fort Bragg, where 1,000 soliders took off for the Gulf region just before 3 a.m. The men and women were from the 659th Maintenance Company, 1st Corps Support Command.

Armed with backpacks and military-issued weapons, they boarded a bus and headed off to join the nearly 8,000 troops from Fort Bragg already deployed around the world.

Meanwhile, at 8 a.m. Saturday, Marines from Camp Lejeune boarded buses for their deployments.

Camp Lejeune officials wouldn't say exactly where the Marines were going or when they might return. The commander of an infantryregiment said he told his troops they probably weren't coming home soon.

"I'm preparing for a year; that's the worst-case scenario," said Col. Ron Bailey.

Marines gathered on a softball field outside the regimental headquarters to say goodbye to family members. Green duffel bagswere stacked shoulder high, and backpacks were laid out evenly on the winter-brown grass.

Marines carried M-16 rifles, had bayonets strapped to the front of their body armor and carried gas masks and ammunition pouches.

Bailey said the Marines in his unit had trained for cold- and hot-weather combat and that their enemies would be facing troops whowere "tougher than woodpecker lips."

As Bailey spoke, some of his troops gave last hugs to tearful wives, girlfriends and family members.

Pfc. Chad Flood, 20, of St. Louis, laughed when he looked up from hugging girlfriend Vanessa Moana and saw a television soundboom over his head and a half dozen cameras pointed at his private moment.

Staff Sgt. Robert Youngblood, 34, of Jacksonville, Fla., said Marines were accustomed to routine deployments in expeditionaryunits, but this was different.

"There's normally a return date of six months later," said Youngblood, whose wife waited in the family car to ward off thechilly weather.

"When you have a wife whose halfway through a pregnancy and a 6-month-old daughter, it creates some tensions. War is uncertain.You know who's going. You don't know who's coming back."

Once the Marines got on board the ships sailing toward the Mediterranean region, they started taking classes on the rules ofengagement and procedures that will govern their lives during the deployment, commanders said. The Marines will be able to focus ontheir mission aboard ship without the distractions of the base, Bailey said.

In all, the total number troops sent from Lejeune into the region soon could exceed 10,000. Already, 800 troops had been flownto the region to get supplies ready for the task force. A separate task force of 500 was sent to northeastern Africa in November andan expeditionary unit of 2,200 is awaiting orders.

Marine helicopters from New River Air Station and two Harrier squadrons from Cherry Point Air Station are expected todeploy Monday, military officials said. The aircraft will travel to the region on ships, the officials said.

The last time such a large force left Camp Lejeune for such an uncertain deployment was the Gulf War against Iraq more than adecade ago. About 2,200 Marines from the base were sent into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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