SAN DIEGO, Nov. 12 (UPI) -- Thousands of family and friends gathered around San Diego Bay Monday to wave goodbye to their loved ones as the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis and its escort ships set sail to join the fleet carrying out air attacks against Afghanistan.
The San Diego-based carrier, its 75 aircraft and more than 5,000 crew members along with the nine ships in its battle group left at 9 a.m. for the Persian Gulf region.
The USS Stennis was ordered to relieve the USS Carl Vinson so the Vinson can get back to its homeport in Bremerton, Wash., before Christmas.
The Stennis and its battle group, which includes the Canadian frigate Vancouver, could be on station in two weeks if it sails straight to the region and will spend as long as six months on active duty.
The ships had been slated to begin a patrol in January, however, the order to sail early was issued after the United States and its allies began military strikes against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaida network last month.
The Stennis will join the carriers Theodore Roosevelt and the Kitty Hawk, and Pentagon officials have said the Vinson's departure for Washington could be delayed if it decided the ship's air wing is needed.
Although the Stennis and its escorts are not expected to be at sea for longer than six months, the ships' departures were no less difficult for the families who must routinely see their loved ones set sail for six-month deployments known as WestPac patrols.
"This is our second deployment since we've been married and it's the hardest because we don't know what is going to happen," a Navy wife who identified herself only as "Tasha" told San Diego television station KGTV as she saw her husband off.
Tasha's husband, a petty officer named Michael who also did not give his last name, said he would likely miss the first steps his daughter, Jasmine, will take, however he was philosophical about the prospect of spending the next six months at sea.
"These are pretty hard things to miss, but it is my job and this comes with the package," he said. "It's for real this time."
The Stennis and its aircrews accelerated their training in the aftermath of Sept. 11 in anticipation of a military response.
Because Afghanistan is landlocked, Navy pilots have been forced to fly longer than normal distances in order reach their targets. Despite the added difficulties, The San Diego Union-Tribune said that the training program was completed and the air wing was considered by the Navy to be fully prepared.