USS Bataan: Mission uncertain?
Two tugs play around the USS Bataan, guiding her out of port, the beginning of her long journey to the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya. Sailors and Marines line her decks, standing to attention while relatives say their goodbyes from another ship on the quayside. One woman rubs her hands up and down the arms of her young son, comforting herself with the repetitive motion as much as him. Another waves as the ship departs, waves as it moves into the open waters, and is still waving as it shrinks into the distance. There are tears, as those who remain behind hug each other in support.
One woman tells me: "Every time they go it is like a little bit taken out of a puzzle. That puzzle is your life. And they never come back the same."
The pain of parting for probably around a year must be great. But this mission is not like Afghanistan, or in the past Iraq, where those leaving would definitely see action. Indeed, no-one seems certain what they are going to do.
Not, as is sometimes the case, because they are unwilling to discuss a military operation. They really don't know.
I ask a couple of Marines if they think they will be landing.
"Couldn't really tell you," says one.
Do they know what the mission is? They shake their heads.
Several tell me they are surprised. They were due to go out to the area soon anyway but the Libyan crisis has cut short their time at home.
"Yes, sir, honestly a little bit surprised, but you're ready for anything in the navy."
"We only got two weeks' notice, it's really sudden," said another.
"I am a little surprised, they're very surprised too, it's a Libyan civil war, I don't quite know what we're doing there," one mother, here to see off her son, tells me.
They are, at least, designed to be ready for anything.
The USS Bataan, along with the USS Mesa Verde and USS Whidbey Island make up an amphibious ready group. The Bataan, which looks to my untutored eye like a small aircraft carrier, is an amphibious assault craft. On board are about 800 Marines (2,200 in the three ships), 26 aircraft, mostly helicopters, and a 600-bed hospital.
They would have been going out to the Med anyway, later in the year, to replace the USS Kearsarge. She's used to being a jack of all trades, delivering troops to the Iraq war, then acting as a Harrier carrier, and helping with the crisis after Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake. Minutes before he boarded the ship I asked the Commodore of Amphibious Squadron Six, Capt Steven Yoder, if he knew what the mission was.
"Right now it's undetermined. We arrive on station, we will be asked to do any of the missions we're trained to. They run from humanitarian assistance to maritime and security operations," he says.
I ask the Marines' commanding officer, Col Eric Steidl, what their mission will be, given that the UN resolution and President Barack Obama have been quite clear that there will be no boots on the ground, especially not American boots.
"I don't make policy decisions, I do what 'higher' tells me to do. Does that mean they will have nothing to do? That's not for me to say," he tells me.
In any war, the individual fighting men and women and their units don't know exactly what they are going to be doing and how that might change. It is a cliche to say no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. But in the Libyan crisis, there is greater uncertainty. The natural evolution of any conflict is further fogged by the uncertainty of what happens if Col Muammar Gaddafi doesn't lose quickly, and fears that the mission will change.
Nonetheless, those 2,200 Marines had better be prepared for a dull and uneventful trip. If they ever come off the front ramp of this landing craft, if they are ever deployed, it will be in defiance of the UN's resolution.
Mr Obama's words are clear, but the US military likes to be prepared for anything.