NORFOLK, Va. - After six months and nine days at war, the carrier Theodore Roosevelt battle group returned to throngs of chilled but cheery loved ones last week.
Just after 8 a.m. Wednesday, the bow of the huge carrier appeared on the horizon to wild cheers.
The ship left Norfolk Sept. 19, rushing off to certain war, only eight days after terrorists had destroyed the World Trade Center's twin towers and damaged the Pentagon. The fighting was in the mountains and the deserts, far from the ship, but the motivation was clear for the crew every day.
A flag flown over the rubble at New York's Ground Zero by the firefighters flew from the ship's mast.
Families began streaming onto Pier 14 at Norfolk Naval Station long before dawn.
Intense security was evident everywhere, as Marines armed with automatic rifles were stationed outside the pier.
Petty Officer 1st Class Naseer Rahim, 34, was shocked when he came off the ship. His wife, Aliya, his sister and his brother-in-law had driven 14 hours from outside Toronto to surprise him.
"We had no idea where we were going," said Aliya. "We drove through the rain, ending up in Virginia Beach early this morning at a hotel, where no one was there."
So they decided to head straight to the pier and wait for Naseer.
He rushed over and grabbed his wife with shock on his face as his brother-in-law videotaped the reunion. It was the perfect end to what Naseer had described as "a tough cruise."
He had been ready to fly to Canada to spend his leave there. His wife told him she had taken a week off and they could go wherever he wanted.
"We're going to go to New York then," he said, heading off the pier.
Beating the rush
The Armagost family was at the pier early, beating the rush that blocked the interstates early in the morning.
Travis Armagost had sailed to battle on his 22nd birthday. His parents, sister, grandmother, uncle and girlfriend were on the pier before 5 a.m. to welcome him home.
"We missed the traffic, but we've been in the cold and the rain," said his sister, Stephanie Armagost.
His mother, Linda, said she had no problem standing in the rain. "It's my baby that's coming home."
The Armagosts were wrapped in orange, plastic parkas they had purchased here. They said they didn't mind the chilly weather, explaining they are from Austin, Minn., where they are accustomed to cold.
At the far end of the pier, in a tent set up for new mothers, Tabitha Moreland, 21, wrapped blankets around her 5-month-old daughter, Gracie, trying to keep her warm.
Father, Lance, a petty officer 3rd class with Fighter Squadron 102 had yet to see his daughter.
Moreland said it was difficult having a baby during the cruise, but she wasn't that worried about her husband's safety.
"Out on the ship, it's probably the safest place he could be if he had to be out there," she said. "If he was on the ground, I think I would have gone crazy."
There were 56 babies registered in the tent.
Tricia Wright, 21, a petty officer 2nd class herself, was inside waiting for her husband, Terrence.
Wrapped in two blankets, inside a car seat within a stroller protected by an umbrella slept their first child, Romeo. The baby was born one month and five days earlier and had already made one trip to the emergency room for a high fever.
"I can't wait for Dad to get home," Tricia said. "It's been too long."
In the VIP tent, Eileen O'Hanlon, the wife of the Roosevelt's commanding officer, Capt. Richard J. O'Hanlon, was keeping track of who had won the first kiss raffle.
"What rain," she joked. "The sun is shining and the birds are singing. Don't you see that?"
`The best one'
She had just received word from her husband that the ship was about 15 minutes away from coming into view. This was the O'Hanlon family's 10th deployment, she said, "and the best one we've ever done."
There were fewer social problems for her and her eight ombudsmen to handle than in any previous cruise, she said. That was probably a function of e-mail bringing such crises to light earlier, the willingness of the ship's officers to deal with them, and the special spirit that even dependents shared after Sept. 11.
When the carrier pulled up to the pier its public address system was playing "Coming to America." When the first line came off the music changed to "The Boys Are Back in Town."
Just after 9 a.m. one of the sailors unfurled a banner reading, "Ashley McGee, will you marry me?"
At 9:30 a.m. the sun finally broke through on what had been a chilly, foggy morning.
Olympia Nunez was looking for her son, Benny Arcantara. She spotted him, but he didn't see her at first even though she screamed and waved flowers.
She and her two daughters, Monique, 16, and Gabriella, 9, drove down from Silver Spring, Md., through the night and arrived at the pier about 5 a.m.
"We're going to have a surprise welcome home for him," Olympia said.
But her son had duty until Friday so she had to drive back to Silver Spring and return to pick him up then.