VIRGINIA BEACH, DEC. 5 -- The thousands of U.S. military men and women preparing to leave from here for duty in the Middle East know their assignment will be no day at the beach. So this resort city decided to give them just that before they go.

The "Sand Blast Party" thrown for 1,000 sailors and their relatives at the Virginia Beach Civic Center a block from the Atlantic Ocean this evening featured outdoor temperatures of 25 degrees and more sweaters than swimwear. But the thought was there.

"This is just to say, 'Hey, folks, we're all in this together. You're our friends and neighbors and we love you,' " said Mayor Meyera E. Oberndorf, who came up with the idea. "We can't control the international situation, but we sure can here at home."

Once again, the Hampton Roads area is sending off many of its own for an uncertain mission, this time in the Middle East. And once again, this heavily military region is groping for a fitting way to bid them fair winds and following seas.

About 10,000 sailors and other members of the military from the Hampton Roads area will ship out shortly after Christmas, joining about 30,000 other local people already in the Middle East as part of President Bush's standoff with Iraq.

By the time they arrive, the Norfolk Naval Station and other local bases will have sent 37 warships to make up one of the largest armadas assembled since World War II.

Heard of Operation Desert Shield? Well, she came up with Operation Home Front, linking government with local businesses to throw tonight's party, put up hundreds of sailors and their families in oceanfront hotel rooms and give them T-shirts and kites as souvenirs.

At the same time, the city is collecting hundreds of pounds of candy and thousands of paperback books to send to troops in the gulf.

Each of the initiatives has an appropriate designation: Project Sand Blast, Project Holiday Hospitality, Project Desert Delivery, Project Sand Paper. There's even Operation M&M, to collect candy of the same name. The project is expected to provide a boost for a city whose most enduring image in the national eye has been the racially tinged rioting on Labor Day weekend of 1989.

Oberndorf said that was not her aim, however.

In boxes in the lobby of the Virginia Beach Central Library, donors have dropped off books like Stephen King's "Misery," Andrew Greeley's "Rite of Spring" and the "Guinness Sports Record Book" for possible shipment to the Middle East.

The books will be sent to nearby Fort Monroe Library, where they will be screened against Saudi sensibilities before being sent.

"Nothing naughty," said Oberndorf. "God forbid! We have enough problems."

At the city civic center, known as "The Dome," the walls and tables were decorated with flags, yellow ribbons and red, white and blue balloons. Sailors and their families gorged themselves on free food and beer, danced to the live band and watched as party sponsors raffled off a

T-shirt with a picture of Saddam Hussein in a target.

"I'm glad to see all the support," said Larry Robinson, 27, a petty officer second class aboard the aircraft carrier USS America, who attended with his wife, Dawn. "In high school, we read about 'Nam and all the lack of support. It's nice to know we're appreciated."

"This party's excellent," agreed Airman Tony Pugil, 27. "I've never seen anything like this before."

For many of the sailors, it was a last chance to let go before spending six months at sea. A month from tonight, they could be in a war zone.

Ed Carpenter, 24, a petty officer third class, was trying to make up for all the beer he will miss while at sea.

"I'm trying to be considerate," he said. "Want to leave some for everybody else."

He ate. He drank. He was merry. "Now all we need are single women," he said. "Married women's all I've seen."

As a parting gift, local retailers gave each sailor a gift package -- souvenir T-shirts, bumper stickers and the like. And one other important item: A rabbit's foot.