The uncertainty and separation of war hit home Thursday as more than 600 Navy Seabees, along with spouses and squirming children, gathered in Port Hueneme to hear last-minute advice on how to handle their upcoming deployment to the Middle East.
Navy Chaplain Brandon Harding urged the Seabees to write often, seek out support and leave behind such mementos as videotapes of themselves reading bedtime stories to their children.
Perhaps even putting their pictures on pillowcases.
"That way your child can sleep with Dad every night," Harding said.
But the mood inside the movie theater at Naval Base Ventura County was tense.
Everyone knew this would be no ordinary mission.
The unit had initially been scheduled to go to Guam in April, but now it was going to the Middle East in just days or weeks.
Cmdr. Rick Burgess told the Seabees, who perform base construction and other support tasks, that he did not know when they would leave or where they would be going.
And given the fluidity of diplomacy, politics and military readiness, he could not offer a timetable on when they would return.
"We have deployment orders to the Middle East," he said as small children cried and others fidgeted on their parents' laps.
"I don't know where we are going. I know we are going to build things," he said.
"The exact location, the exact timing, I don't know right now. That will be determined by President Bush. This might be a little scary, but I want you all to remember that we are ready for this."
Burgess was told to have the unit ready by Jan. 24 and now believes orders to deploy may come at any moment.
One Seabee's wife asked what to do if she ran out of money while her husband was away.
Burgess told her to be frugal, and if things got bad to seek relief from Navy and Marine Corps emergency funds.
"I'd advise you to put some money aside," he said.
Burgess said their mission in the Middle East would be to build airfields, tent cities, roads and infrastructure.
After the talk, the families headed out for a picnic, their moods more reflective than festive.
"I'm scared," said 4-year-old Marisa Niezgoda as she looked up at her father, Petty Officer 1st Class Scott Niezgoda.
"My dad is going to fight the bad guys."
The young man smiled indulgently. But as proud as Marisa was of her dad, she quietly admitted she will miss having him around to read her bedtime stories.
"He reads me Power Puff Girls," she said.
Her mother, Jennifer Niezgoda, said the murkiness of the mission has made it more difficult than others.
"You try to prepare your children for when he leaves, but it's hard," she said as her 11-month-old daughter, Robyn, slept in her stroller.
"We spent Super Bowl Sunday packing his gear."
Despite the hardships, she supports a war to disarm Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein.
"As an American family, we can't afford not to do this," she said. "We don't want another 9-11. That shouldn't be a viable option in this country."
Seabee Edward Papineau, 26, worried about all the growing up his two daughters would do while he is away.
"I feel a little more stressed now," he said.
Daughter Winter, 4, jammed her fingers into her ears, shutting out talk of war and leaving.
"It's very scary and it's very rushed," said his wife, Amber Papineau, 23, as she cradled 6-month-old Lilly.
"But I have confidence in their abilities," she added.
The chaplain's wife, Amy Harding, 26, who has three small children, said she can't think too far ahead.
"You have to take it one day at a time," she said.
"I think the general public thinks military families get used to this, but it's not true," Amy Harding said. "We are just like anyone else. We are not superhuman."