Hundreds of sailors bustled through the enormous hangar bay of this aircraft carrier this morning, making last-minute preparations before the ship sailed from Norfolk into a possible war, but Chief Warrant Officer Bill Dudley was a picture of calm.
Dudley has deployed overseas six times before in his 26 years in the Navy, on ships supporting missions in places such as Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon. This time, it could be Iraq. The Truman will head to the Persian Gulf and will be on call for any conflict with the regime of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. To Dudley, it sounds all too familiar.
"It used to be . . . Gaddafi all the time," he said, recalling when Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi was enemy number 1.
His three children, ages 19, 16 and 15, were similarly blase when they said their goodbyes. "It used to be they'd cry, and I'd cry," the 45-year-old avionics maintenance officer said. "Now, when I told them, 'I want you to know I love you,' they said, 'Dad, it's only six months.' "
Those six months could be eventful for the Truman, which left its home port this morning in a cold and driving rain. Sailors in blue peacoats and heavy gloves manned the rail as Aerosmith's "Livin' on the Edge" blared over loudspeakers. Relatives who braved the atrocious conditions waved farewell at the gate of Pier 14, drenched and sometimes emotional as the ship pulled out.
"Peace on Earth to men of goodwill," a voice said over the loudspeakers. "All others stand by."
The 10 ships in the Truman battle group, carrying 8,000 sailors and Marines, had long been scheduled for the half-year deployment. "We're ready to go and give 'em hell," said Capt. Michael Groothousen, the Truman's commander, echoing a phrase often associated with the former president.
Rear Adm. John "Boomer" Stufflebeem, commander of the battle group, had a Trumanesque line to contribute. "The buck stops here," he said. "It's our turn to take a rotation."
During the early months of the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, Stufflebeem, then deputy director for global operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, became a familiar face on television, often briefing reporters at the Pentagon.
"I'm, quite honestly, a lot happier here," he told reporters as sailors moved equipment in the hangar bay's gloomy light.
According to a senior Navy official at the Pentagon, the Truman probably will be front and center in the attack if the United States goes to war against Iraq. "There is an air of expectation," Stufflebeem said, "and there is an air of anxiety to some degree."
Once the Truman is at sea, the 80 aircraft of Carrier Air Wing Three -- three squadrons of F/A-18 Hornets and one squadron of F-14 Tomcats -- will fly to the carrier.
The Truman contingent is scheduled to sail first to the Mediterranean Sea to relieve the Norfolk-based George Washington battle group, eventually continuing on to the Persian Gulf. The Pentagon could leave the Washington battle group in place, giving the country four carriers in that region.
Accompanying the Truman are the guided-missile destroyers Oscar Austin, Mitscher and Donald Cook; the guided-missile cruiser San Jacinto; the destroyers Briscoe and Deyo; the guided-missile frigate Hawes; the oiler Kanawha; and the ammunition ship Mount Baker.
While some sailors share Dudley's view of the deployment as routine, others are less certain. "It's hard not knowing what to expect," said Petty Officer 3rd Class George Gause.
Some are hoping to see action. "I've been wanting to get over there, and now's my chance," Petty Officer 3rd Class Joshua Smith said with enthusiasm.
In the hangar bay, red-capped members of a Truman "fire party" gave a big cheer for one of their own, Petty Officer 2nd Class Sammy White. He wasn't heading out. Today was his last day in the Navy, and after accepting accolades from shipmates, White left the ship before it sailed.
Dudley acknowledged feeling some emotion. He expects this to be his final deployment before he retires from the Navy. "This is the last one, so it's bittersweet," said Dudley, a relaxed, amiable man, who grew up in Fairfax County and graduated from Marshall High School.
What might lie ahead was on loved ones' minds, too. Many arrived at Pier 14 long before dawn, as a steady stream of sailors scurried to board the ship before their liberty ended at 6 a.m.
Judy Fischer, 30, arrived from Virginia Beach at 4:45 with her fiance, Chief Petty Officer William McLeod. Hours later, she was there still, grasping the bars of a security gate barring access to the ship and gazing at the stern of the carrier, hoping for a last glimpse of McLeod.
Her jeans and jacket were soaked, as was her hair, but she refused to leave. "He knows I'm down here," she said. "The least thing I can do is stand here and wait."