Navy Chaplain Thomas E. Webb leaned over the rail on the flight deck of the USNS Comfort yesterday, scanning the ebullient crowd below. He saw the giant yellow bow tacked to the side of the Dundalk Marine Terminal and the bobbing brass tubas of the marching band. He saw the welcome home sign for "Tonya" and the cluster of red, white and blue balloons for "Jeff."
Then in the midst of the crowd, he spotted them: his wife, Kathy, and daughter Emily waving tiny U.S. flags. That's when the Protestant minister started to tremble.
"I left them eight months ago," uttered the chaplain. "What a joy! America! I said many evening prayers on this ship. The one I prayed for the most, God answered the best. We're home safe."
For many of the 450 medical corpsmen, doctors and nurses remaining aboard the Baltimore-based Navy hospital ship, the first glimpse of home after eight months in the Persian Gulf was the gritty, smoke-stacked coast line of Dundalk. To them, it was paradise.
"It sure looks terrific to us. Best thing we've seen in awhile. That's for sure," said Judy McCarthy, a pharmacist at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda who was summoned from her job in late August, along with about 1,100 medical personnel, and assigned to the 1,000-bed floating hospital. That hospital, once staffed and equipped, rivaled Massachusetts General Hospital.
Yesterday's arrival at the Dundalk Marine Terminal marked the end of an eight-month journey. For 90 percent of the staff, this was their first time at sea. The brevity of the war never brought to the decks of the Comfort the number of casualties once feared -- perhaps as many as 30,000. Still, the mission was not without its grim moments.
For 13 hours Halloween night, the medical crew worked to save the lives of four sailors who were critically burned in an explosion on the Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship.
Corpsman Donald Hatley, 27, was there that evening when the patients -- many only a few years younger than he -- died from burns.
"The day after was the hardest day," Corpsman Hatley said. "We found out their names, their ranks. When you finally find out who they are and what they're made of, it finally hits home."
In all, the crew cared for 716 patients who were admitted to the hospital and treated more than 8,000 outpatients during the ship's tour of duty in Operation Desert Storm.
Yesterday, Corpsman Hatley was thinking about the Smoky Mountains of his native North Carolina, where he plans a trip "to take in just what it's like to be sitting on green grass."
"There's a swinging bridge. It goes over from Grandfather Mountain to a rock that stands straight up, and you can see out to three or four states from the top," said Corpsman Hatley, who planned to spend his first night home with his sister, Cindy Alexander, in Essex.
Coming home for Lt. Cmdr. Melanie D. Frank of Gaithersburg meant the chance again to hold her family -- "physically," she said emphatically. To kiss and nuzzle her husband, Joel, 5-year-old daughter, Lauren, and 7-year-old son, Evan. And while she was looking forward to many things -- a mystery weekend away with her husband, waking up in her own bed and opening a window, holding her 100-pound French poodle, Schooner -- Commander Frank was anxious, too.
"I want to fit back in that world as mom and wife," said Commander Frank, a Navy nurse. "Intellectually, I know I will. Emotionally, I don't know because I haven't experienced it yet." And, she added, "driving is going to scare the hell out of me, back on the Beltway."
The Comfort lowered its gangplank at the terminal's dock, and hundreds of family members surged forward to board the ship. Sailors, many of them tanned from the harsh Middle Eastern sun, stood in their dark-blue Navy dress uniforms against the white rails of the hospital ship to await them. A brass band played, families hoisted hand-lettered banners, and children waved bouquets of yellow roses, carnations and mums.
Personnelman 1st Class Roxanne Beamer nervously paced the deck, limply waving a red-white-and-blue cardboard heart she had made and inscribed with her daughter's name, Amy. In the muddle of smiling faces below, Mrs. Beamer could see no one she recognized.
Then a fellow sailor called out, "There's Amy."
Mrs. Beamer bounded down a flight of steps to the deck below to get a closer look at the little girl she left behind in Quantico, Va., last August.
"Beautiful," Mrs. Beamer said proudly, wiping tears from her eyes.
The tension of reuniting with sweethearts and beaus, moms and dads, sons and daughters rippled through the corridors of the ship.
"Do you know where you're going?" a woman asked her Navy husband as the two wound their way up three flights of steps in the bowels of the ship.
"Mary, I've been on her for five months," the sailor answered. "I had to do this every day."
It wasn't until she got to the bridge of the ship that 9-year-old Lindsey Zulauf had the chance to offer her dad, First Officer Charles Zulauf of Essex, the dozen yellow roses she had been carrying.
"He's gotten a bit taller," Lindsey remarked, when asked if her father had changed.
During the joyful reunions, Chief Larry Svoboda packed up his gear in preparation for leaving the ship. He knew his return to his family in Morrison, Colo., was still a plane ride away.
Then unexpectedly, he heard his name over the Comfort's public address system. Report to the mess deck, it said.
As he rounded a corner, he heard the voice of his 2-year-old son, Brian. "There's Daddy," said the boy.
Before him stood Brian, his 4-year-old daughter, Briana, and his wife, Sherry.
"I flew on an airplane, Daddy," Briana told him. "Can we go home now, Daddy?"