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Tears and farewells at Navy pier

With little fanfare, the guided-missile cruiser Cape St. George left San Diego on Wednesday for six months, bound for the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf.

For Kathy Duszka and Jasmin Rios, the deployment will mark the second Christmas in a row that their husbands have been gone.

The Cape St. George, named for a World War II battle, is one of the busiest ships in the Navy, providing protection for the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.

It was gone last Christmas and returned in March.

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Repeat deployments and short turnarounds have been a fact of life for military families in recent years. Now there are other stressful situations as well, particularly for sailors hoping to make a career of the Navy.

The Navy is trimming 3,000 sailors from its rolls this year, possibly more later, as the Department of Defense struggles to rein in its massive budget. There is also talk of reducing pension benefits and requiring families to pay more for healthcare.

For the moment though, it’s the holiday season and that is uppermost in the minds of many family members of the Cape St. George crew.

Two-thirds of the 400 crew members were also on last year’s deployment.

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Many families celebrated Christmas early. Some sailors left presents behind and some took presents aboard the ship.

“I had to promise not to open mine until Christmas,” said Capt. Don Gabrielson, commander of the Cape St. George, who spent the final moments at the pier talking to family members of his crew.

Duszka, 25, is going to Florida to be with her family; Rios, 21, is going to Mexico for the same reason.

As they stood together on the dock, they agreed that Christmas adds a level of stress to the separation anxiety of deployment.

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“It’s hard,” Duszka said, “when you see families with their husbands and brothers home. When I see other couples at Christmas it’s a pain in my heart.”

A small group of family members were on the pier at the 32nd Street Naval Base, awaiting the 7 a.m. departure.

Some wives had red-rimmed eyes and some children were in their pajamas.

This was the fourth deployment for Andrea Hatch’s husband. She was on the pier with their four children: a 12-year-old daughter and sons 11, 9 and 7 years old.

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“With each deployment, you learn more,” said Hatch, 35. “You need to be more patient with the children. They get very emotional when Daddy’s gone. I take them somewhere special every month and tell them, ‘Daddy’s one month closer to coming home.’ ”

Courtney Sager, 28, is seven months pregnant with the couple’s fourth child. Her husband was home for the birth of the first three children: a daughter, now 8, and sons, ages 2 and 1.

Now, Sager said, she’ll have an experience common to Navy wives: giving birth while their husbands are halfway around the world. “It’s what people do in the Navy,” she said.

As departure time neared for the Cape St. George and a last-minute technical problem was fixed, the tension of family members appeared to rise. But not for Sager, who took a philosophical view of the deployment.

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“It has to start,” she said, “so it can end.”

tony.perry@latimes.com


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