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All Hands at Last in Reach of Loving Arms

The Lincoln Returns From Extended Mission

May 03, 2003|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

NORTH ISLAND NAVAL AIR STATION — In nearly 10 months at sea, they ate 29,000 pounds of hamburger and drank 42,107 gallons of milk.

They traded some 3 million e-mails, and got 35,000 haircuts and a visit from the president of the United States.

Some 150 became new parents.

And on Friday, the crew of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln returned from war.

Theirs was among the longest deployments since the Vietnam War. They had gotten as far as Australia on their way home in December when the orders came to head back to the Persian Gulf. As the long journey came to its close, anticipation could be seen in the faces of its crew men and women and heard in their voices.

Tamara Conner, 21, jumped up and down and her eyes welled with tears when she spotted her parents standing beneath an American flag on the pier. "I see you! Yeah!" the Chicago native said over her cell phone. "We'll be down in a minute."

As soon as she heard the shout of "Go!" Conner and thousands of other sailors rushed down the stairs to the pier at the mouth of San Diego's harbor for reunions with relatives they had not seen since July.

After a night in San Diego, the aircraft carrier is scheduled to arrive Tuesday at its home port in Everett, Wash., where most of the ship's 5,000-member crew will make their final departure.

The deployment ended with a visit from President George W. Bush, who flew aboard Thursday and announced from the flight deck that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended." Bush slept on board and flew out Friday morning after saluting the ship's senior officers and waving to a line of sailors.

"I thought it was pretty awesome for him to come out here and tell us he's proud of us," said Lt. j.g. Michael Shearer, 27. "It made it all worth it."

The sailors were greeted by throngs of people cheering, whistling and holding "Welcome Back" signs. They carried bouquets of fresh red roses -- flown out a day earlier and sold on deck for $15 -- and bags filled with uniforms and souvenirs. Well-wishers thanked them for their hard work and offered hearty congratulations.

Daniel Eaton of Bakersfield won the "first kiss" raffle and the right to be first off the ship. Before walking down the stairs, Eaton, 25, looked out to the pier and said he couldn't believe how many people had come to welcome the carrier.

"I'm nervous," he said. "It looks like there are hundreds of thousands of people out there."

Michael Hadley, 21, said it felt odd to be on solid ground again after more than nine months on the ocean. Hadley said he just wanted to get away from the ship and go home to Orange County.

He gave his mother, Lynette Tholkes, a long hug and said, "I love you, Mama."

Tholkes said she couldn't stand the long wait. Nor could Hadley.

"I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream," he said.

Dana Hadley said that his son's e-mails at the beginning of the deployment were full of enthusiasm and humor. But as time went on, they became more serious and pensive.

"Nine months really takes its toll," he said. "We're happy to have him home."

The unexpected extension of the deployment was the hardest part for Monica King, 32, whose husband does payroll aboard the ship. King had thrown away the calendar she used to cross off the days until the homecoming. She and her children started a new one when Joseph King told them he was truly on his way home.

"It's so good to have him back," she said, holding her husband's hand Friday morning. "He needed to be home. The kids need their daddy."

King scooped his youngest daughter into his arms and kissed her on the forehead. Josie, 3 1/2, took the sailor's hat off her dad's head and put it on herself. Six-year-old Eric grabbed his daddy's leg and said, "When we get home, we're gonna have fun!"

Eric said he missed playing videogames with his dad. Gabrielle, 11, said she just missed hearing him call her "Pumpkin." When the family started to walk toward their car, Gabrielle yelled, "I get dibs on sitting next to Daddy!"

Monica King smiled at her daughter and said, "No, I don't think so. Mommy gets dibs."

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