SYKESVILLE — After months away from their boyhood homes, three cousins lapsed easily into a familiar routine, gathering around the swimming pool and reminiscing about recent adventures.
All servicemen and recently returned from the Persian Gulf, they were swapping war stories while celebrating a homecoming with their families last weekend.
The far-from-boyish tales revolved around aircraft, bombings and endless days at sea. The three said they never realized when they enlisted that they would fight a war together.
K. Wayne Hart, 24, andLucas Ball, 20, had just returned from six months aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a nuclear aircraft carrier stationed in the gulf forthe duration of the war.
Owen Ball, 19, was part of an army intelligence unit, working in Turkey and Northern Iraq during Operation Provide Comfort.
Ball said he was comforted by the knowledge his cousins were aboard the ship providing air cover for his unit. He even made several unsuccessful attempts to contact his relatives through messages to pilots flying overhead.
After six months at sea, Hart and Lucas Ball were among the nearly 6,000 men who disembarked from thecarrier returning to its home port in Norfolk, Va., June 28. Owen was in the crush of nearly 60,000 people awaiting the ship's return, with its battle group.
He had traveled to Virginia with his aunts and uncles, Wendell and Pat Hart of here and Frances and Calvin Ball, formerly of Pleasant Valley.
"It was pure pandemonium as we waited on the pier," said Wendell. "These were the last guys to come home and their families all wanted to be there."
The Roosevelt -- at one-quarter mile in length the largest warship in the world -- carries 96planes, launching them from its 4 1/2-acre flight deck. After leaving Dec. 28, it had reached the Red Sea just as the air war began in January.
"Then, it was full speed ahead to the gulf," said Wayne Hart, an avionics technician who works on the planes' radar systems. "Assoon as we arrived, we began launching air strikes. We were the third carrier to get there, but we immediately took over the lead spot, about 200 miles off the coast of Kuwait."
Planes from the ship flewa total of 4,209 sorties, delivered 4.8 million pounds of ordnance on Iraqi targets and destroyed 31 Iraqi naval vessels, according to the ship's records.
"We dropped more bombs and logged more flight hours than any other ship over there," said Lucas Ball.
When the ground war began, the ship tripled its flight operations to cover the troops fighting in the desert, taking on more bombs and fuel every three days, said Ball, an aircraft mechanic.
"Planes working that hardrequire incredible amounts of maintenance," he added. "We worked at night when they weren't launching. I saw the sun about once every three weeks."
With eight escort ships to protect it, the Roosevelt crew felt safe most of the time, the men said.
"We knew early on that Iraq couldn't beat us," said Hart, "although taking out a carrier would have been a tremendous moral victory (for the Iraqis)."
Theircaptain was most concerned about a surprise attack, which could havecome from behind the mountain range along the Iraqi coast, they said.
"In a small water area like the gulf, the enemy can hit you fromany direction," said Ball.
CNN picked up an erroneous report of the ship's sinking from Iraqi radio, said Ball.
"Let's launch some more planes and show them how sunk we are, was our reply to that report," said Ball.
Following that incident, both men wrote home telling the family not to believe everything they heard.
The war ended,but the carrier didn't make port until mid-March -- after 78 straight days at sea.
"We thought we were on the cruise from hell," said Hart about the long stretches at sea. "We called our ship the USS Never Dock."
After a few days, the Roosevelt continued its cruise, sailing to the Mediterranean, where it provided air coverage and dropped supplies for Kurdish refugees.
"We knew the Roosevelt was backing us up," said Owen Ball. "For me, it was great knowing we were working together."
About three weeks ago, the Roosevelt headed home, much to the relief of its crew.
Hart called his six months aboard ship a long haul. His cousin agreed, but added, "we had a job to do andwe wanted to do it."
Both Navy men are looking forward to shore duty and eventually to moving back home.
"I have been halfway around the world twice," said Hart, who will finish his enlistment in November. "I can tell you there is no place better than Carroll County."
Lucas has about a year to go before he can return here, he said.
"With the training and experience I have had, I could be one of thebest mechanics in the county," he said.
Owen Ball opted for an Army enlistment, saying he preferred solid ground to months at sea. He is stationed in Massachusetts, with about four more years of service to complete.
The Hart and Ball families all said they provided support for each other.
"We traded letters and tapes as soon as we got them," said Frances Ball.
The families had triple the fun and triple the gratitude at their welcome home party as they gathered theirsons back into the family circle.