To the tears of many family members, thousands of Marines on Wednesday packed their gear and began the long journey to the Persian Gulf to provide the military muscle behind President Bush's demand that Saddam Hussein disgorge Iraq's suspected stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
The departure of the 6,000 Marines is a further sign that the showdown between the United States and Iraq is heading toward what analysts call "end-game," where negotiations and diplomacy could give way to military action.
About 2,400 troops who left Camp Pendleton on Jan. 5 are on a regularly scheduled six-month deployment, but the 6,000 who departed Wednesday are part of a task force assembled specifically for the showdown with Iraq.
"We didn't start this trouble, but if it comes down to it, we'll finish it," said Gunnery Sgt. Robert Kane, 39, of Temecula.
In a bus convoy, the Marines headed to the 32nd Street Naval Station, where on Friday they will depart aboard seven ships, the largest flotilla to deploy from San Diego since the 1990 buildup to the Persian Gulf War.
In all, 6,000 Marines from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and 4,000 sailors will make the 37-day voyage, as the United States amasses the forces needed for a ground offensive.
A command element of several hundred Marines from Camp Pendleton has been in Kuwait since late November, and the 2,400 Marines left 10 days ago on three ships out of San Diego.
Although the Marines had known for weeks that a deployment was imminent, there was still last-minute checking of gear and cleaning of weapons and myriad details to consider.
"We know we're ready, but there are always things running through your head as you think about everything," said Sgt. Nathan Johnson, 22, from Georgetown in Northern California.
Rows of M-16 rifles, handguns and machine guns were ready to be packed in trucks for the trip to San Diego.
And there was concern, too, about the spiritual well-being of the Marines, most of whom have never been in a war zone.
"We're in a very good place spiritually," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Herb Griffin, a Protestant chaplain who is shipping out with the Marines. "This experience will test their faith. But we will get through this together, get our business done and come home."
Cpl. Dallas Green, 21, of Milwaukee said, "I'm anxious to go and come back."
For some, the deployment is a rematch with an old foe.
Marines from Camp Pendleton played a prominent role in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. Captured equipment from that war -- an Iraqi tank and a Chinese-made antiaircraft gun -- is displayed on the lawn near where the troops assembled to load onto the buses Wednesday.
"Saddam Hussein got a taste of what Marines could do in 1991," said Kane. "It's up to him: Does he want to follow the United Nations' mandate, or does he want more of the same he got back then?"
If the Marines were buoyant, their families were visibly shaken. Some wives wept, others fought back tears, lest they upset the children.
"I've got to stay strong for him," said Shannon Hendrickson, 25, holding her 2-year-old son Jonathan, as her husband, Lance Cpl. Benjamin Hendrickson, boarded a bus.
For military families, overseas deployment and uncertainties are common. Still, the specter of combat in the desert, and the possibility of biological or chemical weapons being used by Iraq, increased the anxiety.
"This one [deployment] is particularly scary because there's so much talk of war," said Shirley Wallace of San Onofre, as she waved goodbye to her son, Staff Sgt. Daniel Wallace.
"You don't really know if they're coming back alive. Only God knows who's coming back."