BETHESDA -- When the moment finally arrived -- the moment for which Ken and Lt. Denise McDowell had waited "6.67 months, or 200 days," the husband calculated -- all the couple could do was hold each other with their daughter between them and trade "I love you's."
"My best friend is back," said Mr. McDowell of Gaithersburg, tears sliding off his face.
"I missed you so much," said his wife, a Navy nurse who was among the 200 Navy men and women from the USNS Comfort hospital ship who were bused to Bethesda Naval Hospital last night -- the very place from which they left nearly seven months ago -- after landing at Andrews Air Force Base earlier in the evening.
They were the first wave of medical personnel, many of them Maryland-based, to return home from the Persian Gulf.
Mr. McDowell, equipped with red roses, white mums and blue irises and a video camera, said he thought the buses should have pulled into the naval hospital in reverse.
After all, everything about the festive homecoming last night was in complete reverse from the scene here last August, when the tears and hugs accompanied painful, solemn goodbyes.
"All of our emotions are in reverse," said the 41-year-old banker."It's 180 degrees the other way. I'm kind of in shock. There's a lot of happiness and joy tonight."
Packed in the lobby of the Naval Hospital, where a Navy band played Operation Desert Storm's "We Are With You" anthem, were hundreds of relatives and friends of the returning servicemen and women; a sea of balloons, yellow ribbons, flags, banners and flowers; and an even wider sea of joyful tears.
Hospital corpsman David Talbott, of Laurel, held his 8-week-old son, William John, for the first time. "After hearing about him and seeing him in pictures, there's nothing quite like holding him for the first time," he said. "It's unbelievable. Pure joy."
"It's culture shock," said Petty Officer Eddie Santiago, whose large family drove from New York for the homecoming, piled into three cars (with their yellow-ribbon-festooned dog). "During the whole flight home we were all looking out the window. When we landed at Andrews, the plane just erupted -- yelling and screaming.
"We rode on the Beltway -- the Beltway hasn't changed much -- and then you see your family and you know it's all over. You know you're home. It's great to be home."
"I'm happier than a fat man in a candy store," said Fred Wilson, of Silver Spring, reunited with his wife, Lt. Latanya Davidson-Wilson.
"I'm so happy, I've learned to do the moonwalk. I'll never complain about her nagging again. I missed her nagging."
Lieutenant McDowell, who brought a big stuffed bear she bought in Bahrain for 19-month-old daughter Caitlin, couldn't stop marveling at how much her child had the grown, or trying to elicit a "Momma" from her.
"Who am I? Who am I?" she kept prodding. Finally, after a few "Daddas" young Caitlin delivered.
"She said it!" her mother exclaimed. "She's so cute. And she has hair! She was bald when I left. I'm not going to let her out of my sight. She's stuck with me. No holiday can compare with this. There are no words to describe it."
An intensive-care nurse, Lieutenant McDowell, 32, said her nearly seven months in the gulf were "an emotional roller coaster. We never knew what was going to happened."
Aboard the Comfort she treated victims of vehicle accidents, accidental gunshot wounds and assorted minor injuries.
About 600 more Comfort personnel will continue to return to Bethesda over the next week, landing at Andrews Air Force Base (where the 21 returning American POWs are scheduled to arrive today). The remaining 400 staff members will accompany the ship back from the Persian Gulf to its base in Baltimore.
Mr. McDowell didn't know until his wife called him Friday from Bahrain that she would be coming with the first group last night.
He spent all of yesterday "walking on air" and preparing for the long-awaited homecoming. He said he did laundry, made sure the house was immaculate, got the car washed and broke out a bottle of vintage Korbel champagne, as well as candles and soft romantic music he'd put together for his wife's return.
"This is going to be so much fun," said the euphoric husband. "Just having her in the car and going home, all three of us together."
Lieutenant McDowell, too, was looking forward to the short trip to her Gaithersburg town house, where a "Welcome home Mommy" banner would greet her outside.
"I just want to go home and be normal," she said. "It will be good to be normal people again."