Five months ago, Hospitalman 2nd Class Michael W. Reynolds went to Baltimore for life raft training. A little later, he was in Norfolk for damage control and firefighting courses. And Monday, on the verge of his departure for the Middle East to join the mammoth hospital ship USNS Comfort, now steaming toward the Persian Gulf, Reynolds squeezed in one last emergency briefing -- on wounds caused by chemical warfare.

Along with 1,100 of his U.S. Navy comrades at Bethesda Naval Medical Center -- fully half the total military staff there, including doctors, nurses, corpsmen and support personnel -- the 29-year-old has been actively preparing for more than a year to serve aboard this ship in a possible war.

Now the time has come.

With hundreds of others, he called relatives, stood in line to get shots, stashed his car with a friend, and sought the help of a Navy aide in rewriting his will. He dropped by the military dentist for a whole-mouth Panorex X-ray -- just in case it's needed later for identification.

The mobilization orders had been issued last Thursday, and by Monday, 400 officers and enlisted personnel had already processed out of Bethesda and boarded the Comfort in Norfolk in time for its Tuesday departure; 700 others expect to leave within 10 days by air to join the ship.

For Reynolds, who has supervised 45 enlisted personnel at Bethesda and who had once served with U.S. Marines in the Far East, mobilization isn't unusual. "But a lot of these kids and nurses here," he said, "it's the first time they've had to pack up and go, and it's really brought home to a lot of people the reason they're in the Navy. I remember watching Vietnam on TV, but a lot of these 19-year-olds didn't see that -- they only think of Rambo and say, 'Let's go!'

"We could be in for an experience that none of us is ready for emotionally."

Altogether, the Bethesda team constitutes nearly the total complement of staff and crew aboard the ship, which with 1,000 beds and 12 operating rooms has nearly three times the capacity of the naval hospital itself. The Comfort is one of only two hospital ships of any nation in the world today -- the other, the USNS Mercy, is sailing out of Oakland, Calif. That the mobilization could take place so quickly, and the ship sail so soon, is considered a kind of military miracle.

At the hospital, there have been hints for weeks that the ship might sail, but when the actual orders came down last Thursday afternoon at 1600 hours in a mass staff meeting, the 350-bed national naval hospital went into a tizzy.

People were both excited and fearful as the work of preparation began, lasted into the night and intensified over the weekend. The hospital stopped doing elective surgery and began partially emptying its usually crowded-to-capacity wards, mostly by normal discharges, partly by transferring patients to other military and civilian hospitals.

Yesterday, with fewer than 200 patients remaining in the hospital, Cmdr. David Louwsma sat in his office in the anesthesiology department recounting an emotional phone call he'd received at 10 that morning from his wife, Dorothy, who was on a religious pilgrimage in Europe. She'd just arrived in Rome, and had seen the pope in St. Peter's Square and read the headlines about U.S. military deployments that might include her husband.

"You're not going, are you?" she asked when he picked up the phone.

"Yes, honey," he said. "We have a job to do here."

"Well, don't volunteer for anything!" she said.

As a former Navy nurse, said Louwsma, "perhaps she understands too much. She knows what's involved when you're deployed to a hostile theater in terms of potential risks."

And, he said, those risks could be substantial. If there's fighting, "We anticipate receiving evacuees from field hospitals {on land}, so we do anticipate being close to areas of engagement."

In addition, there's the question of chemical warfare. Iraq, known to have poison gas, has threatened to use it if attacked, and the ship has a decontamination unit for patients who have been subjected to chemical or radioactive substances.

"We've all been trained for chemical warfare," said Louwsma, "and the ship is prepared for that. But a lot of our information dates back to World War I, so we don't know a lot about it. But we're ready." The possibility of chemical wounds, he said, "adds a whole other layer of complexity to the situation. We've got to make sure evacuees don't contaminate us and take us out of action."

Louwsma also found himself, on visiting the ship in Baltimore over the past year, "impressed with the reality that we may be called on to manage very difficult trauma patients in a relatively spartan environment. It's a well-equipped ship, but you can't possibly have the resources that you have in this hospital. But that's the name of the game in Navy medicine -- being resourceful."

The commander, who is acting head of the hospital's anesthesiology department because his boss left for the Comfort Monday, has had to make some critical decisions about who will leave and who will remain to man the hospital, where there are no plans to shut down completely. Of the 25 key military workers in his department, he said, half will go to the ship and the others -- along with 35 students and trainees -- will continue to work in Bethesda.

"Everybody is willing to go," he said. "People may come by and mention that their wife is pregnant or sick, then they'll say, 'No matter what, I'm ready to serve.' "

Worried that his wife will be angry with him, Louwsma, a tall and balding man who has developed the habit of taking an M&M from a big jar on his desk and tossing it expertly into his mouth in a high arc, is reluctant to admit that he himself volunteered for ship duty -- which could last up to a year, according to officers at the hospital.

But in fact he did.

"It's not any different for me," he said firmly, "than for a Pfc. from Fort Bragg." So he canceled a planned vacation with his two college-bound children and buckled down to get ready for war.

And when his wife called yesterday, "I told her I was concerned that she take care of herself and be careful and come back safely from Europe, and that I hoped I'd be here to see her when she got back, but that there's a good chance I won't be... ."

Dorothy, who is planning to return Aug. 29 to their home in Rockville after a visit to Lourdes, France, wept.

"Remember," she told her husband, "that I love you."

"People are very, very much excited by this," said Lt. Cmdr. Mary DeSalvo, a nurse who heads a 36-bed general care ward that is usually full but that, by yesterday afternoon, was down to five patients. "This is what it's all about. This is why we're in the military."

Of the 15 nurses working for her, all but two are going on the ship and, she said, are happy to be going even though they might be, inside, "a little bit afraid too." She denied the scuttlebutt around the hospital hallways that there is a secret code word one needs to know to get aboard the ship -- supposedly to guard against eager stowaways.

"We all want to go," said one nurse on DeSalvo's now almost ghostly quiet ward, leaning her elbows languidly on a desk. "We're just waiting to know when."

Her own husband, said DeSalvo, is an Army veteran of World War II and has "been through all this before. When I told him he said, 'I'll bet you volunteered,' and I said, 'Darn right! I wouldn't want the Comfort to leave without me.' " She and her husband have no children.

DeSalvo, 36, is a 12-year Navy veteran from southern Virginia who found four years as a registered nurse "very boring." The Navy changed all that for her -- the good training, the posting to different bases.

And now -- a voyage to a possible war zone.

"That's a risk I had to take," she said. "I don't know what will happen. Everyone is praying that there are no casualties. The training and the trip alone is still the chance of a lifetime. God forbid that things escalate. Maybe I can get in a little fishing. They told me the lockers on the Comfort would take my rod if I broke it down. My fishing gear -- I'm taking it!"

Several floors away in the large hospital yesterday, Legalman 2nd Class Ruth Romeyn was busy helping the departing officers and enlisted personnel to make out wills and powers of attorney.

"We've processed over 400 wills," she said. "It's nice because I don't usually get to talk to officers in a personal way." Because of the rush of the work, she can't go into great detail with each person, however. "We try to make them very general, just in the interest of time."

Romeyn is going too. She'll be a legal aide aboard the Comfort and said that her husband, a former Marine, understands. "I'm ready to go," she said, "but I'd be more comfortable if the ship had some weapons." In fact, it has none at all, and the personnel aboard are noncombatants under the Geneva Convention.

Hospitalman Reynolds, who works on DeSalvo's ward, said yesterday that he is ready to depart. And he has served as a "big brother" to the younger enlisted personnel in his care. He said he can't always be of help to them, but "when mass confusion is going on, somebody's got to answer the questions."

One of the toughest moments for him personally, he said, was calling his 6-year-old son, who lives with his ex-wife in Jacksonville, Fla. "I called him on the phone and talked to him and said, 'I'm going away for a while. I love you, and I'm sorry I won't be here for your birthday.'

"I think he understood, as much as you can understand when you're 6 years old."