NORFOLK, Va. -- "I'll Be Home for Christmas" blared from loudspeakers when the USS George Washington deployed from Norfolk Naval Station in June. On Friday, the sailors kept their promise.
The aircraft carrier pulled into the pier shortly before 9:30 a.m. as thousands of rain-soaked relatives and friends cheered and waved signs, flags and bouquets of red and white flowers. The weather forced sailors who had manned the rails on the carrier's flight deck to seek cover on the hangar deck below as four tugboats pushed and pulled the massive ship into position.
"For a while I didn't think he wasn't going to be home for Christmas," said Joy Colson, 50, of Pearland, Texas, who was waiting to greet her son, Seaman 1st Class John "Colt" Colson, 19, at the end of his first cruise. "We missed him. I was a little worried about him but I figured God would take care of him."
About 7,500 sailors and Marines with the ships and squadrons of the George Washington battle group returned this week to the East Coast six months after they left for a regularly scheduled deployment. There had been some speculation they might be delayed so the carrier could head quickly to the Persian Gulf should the United States go to war with Iraq.
"Most people were willing to do it," Petty Officer 1st Class Greg Lock, 38, of Mesa, Ariz., said of the George Washington crew. "People get a lot more motivated when you're talking about terrorism."
'Glad to be back'
"I'm glad to be back," he added, hugging his teary-eyed wife, Penny, and their 23-month-old daughter, Tyler Ann.
The chance to relax a bit and spend time with families will re-energize the sailors for whatever their next mission might be, said Capt. Martin Erdossy III, the carrier's commanding officer.
"We all know that this war on terror is an important one," Erdossy said. "Who knows where the next bad spot is going to be? And it's not going to be as easy as going to drop a few bombs in a place like Afghanistan. This is going to be a long-term commitment."
Shortly after the carrier arrived, a group of sailors unfurled a banner reading "Margaret, Will You Marry Me, Gil," eliciting more cheers from onlookers.
A sailor dressed in a Santa Claus suit walked along the edge of hangar deck, waving to people on the pier. Signs on the stern read "Merry Christmas Deck Department" and "Happy Holidays."
Some sailors used cell phones to call their loved ones on the pier as they waited until they could get off the ship. For a time, the crowd chanted, "Welcome home."
Amanda Littlefield, 22, of Virginia Beach kept dry under a tent reserved for new mothers as she waited to introduce her husband, Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Littlefield, to their 3-month-old daughter, Ashley. Matthew Littlefield, 26, was one of 115 George Washington sailors who missed the births of their children because of the deployment.
The long separation "is emotionally stressful, but in the end it's worth it," said Amanda Littlefield, an airman 1st class stationed at Langley Air Force Base in nearby Hampton. "I know what it's like to serve the country. I'm proud of what he's doing."
The George Washington launched about 10,000 sorties including offensive strike missions designed to dislodge Taliban and al-Qaida operatives in the nation's war against terrorism.
In August, the George Washington and the guided missile cruiser USS Normandy steamed into the Persian Gulf in support of the United Nations-imposed "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq. Carrier Air Wing 17 sorties marked the first time in a year that aircraft launched from a U.S. carrier patrolled the skies over Iraq in conjunction with other coalition aircraft, the Navy said.
The ships of the battle group also took part in numerous exercises with allies in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean and visited a number of countries.
Besides the George Washington and the Normandy, the guided missile destroyers USS Mahan and USS Laboon and the guided missile cruiser USS Monterey also returned to Norfolk. The fast combat support ship USNS Supply returned to Earle Naval Weapons Station in New Jersey.
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