Departing Seabees Experience Emotional Goodbyes

Times Staff Writer

Mustered in a parking lot Tuesday as two empty buses waited to carry them away, the 60 Seabees were besieged with questions from a camouflage-clad, no-nonsense, clipboard-toting woman: Do you have seven magazines for the M-16s? Do you have a Baggie of cleaning supplies? Do you have two full canteens?

But for many, their minds weren't as much on what they were bringing to the Middle East as what they were leaving behind.

With a possible war against Iraq imminent, the troops were the last of the Seabees' Battalion 4 to leave Naval Base Ventura County.

Of about 6,000 troops stationed at the base, about half have been deployed to areas around the Persian Gulf. And after the buses took them to an air base for a 30-hour flight, that was where the troops were pointed Tuesday evening.

"I'm apprehensive," said Linda Thompson, 19, a Seabee cook from San Diego. "I just want to hurry up and come back soon."

Like most of the troops, Thompson had already bidden her farewells. She had asked her parents to stay home instead of driving up to see her off.

"I wouldn't let them come," she said, her eyes misting. "I didn't want their last sight of me to be boarding a bus."

The troops were subdued but maintained the game face expected of an outfit whose motto is "We build, we fight."

Some talked to reporters about having a job to do and just going out to do it, about what it means in a war to put down roads and lay out airstrips, about duty and loyalty.

In formation, the group was led into a rousing military "Hoorah!"

But for all their can-do earnestness, many had just been through wrenching separations.

Wearing a black cross imprinted on his khaki collar, chaplain Brandon Harding had just said goodbye to his wife and three young children in their Point Mugu home.

His 6-month-old daughter, Sophia, was asleep in her living room swing and Harding did not want to wake her.

"I just stood over her and let it all soak in," he said. "I thought about the things I'll miss -- her crawling around, her first steps. The tears flowed all around."

Like many others in his battalion, Harding returned from a six-month deployment to Okinawa last June. He said his 3-year-old son Caleb had been "my shadow" ever since. "What do I tell my kids?" he asked.

"That's a question we're all asking." Before he once again told his wife, Amy, he loved her, he gave her a gift rooted in faith. "I'll be back," he told her. "It's going to be OK."

Others carried tokens of those left behind.

Shawn Mulkins was shipping out. His wife, Theressa, had given him a leprechaun earring -- a reminder that she and her husband are also a matched set.

"I'm not saying goodbye," she said. "I'm saying, 'See you later.' "

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