Staff Sgt. Brad Paige shares a moment with his wife, Janice, and son Jacob… (Sandy Huffaker, Getty Images )
Reporting from Camp Pendleton — Col. Roy Osborn, commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, has a succinct way of explaining the deployment that just ended with the safe return of 2,300 Marines and sailors.
"We stayed busy for seven months," Osborn said Friday as his Marines came ashore here.
The unit was engaged in three high-profile missions: liberating a German freighter and its crew from pirates off the Somali coast, taking relief supplies to flood-ravaged Pakistan and providing close-air support for Marines in combat in Afghanistan.
The anti-piracy mission took only a few hours with heavily armed Marines freeing the crew and taking nine pirates prisoner without firing a shot. The relief mission, in which Marine helicopters ferried tons of supplies to far-flung regions, lasted 2 ½ months.
And whenever the unit was within flying range of Afghanistan, ship-based vertical takeoff planes did reconnaissance and bombing missions in Helmand province, where 20,000 Marines are seeking to wrest control from Taliban fighters.
In military parlance, an expeditionary unit is a "rapid-response, forward-deployed" force. The Marines of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit were aboard the amphibious assault ship Peleliu, the amphibious transport Dubuque and the dock landing ship Pearl Harbor.
The three ships — with a total of 2,000 sailors — returned to San Diego on Saturday. Helicopter squadrons had flown from the ships Friday to their base at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
The Marines keep an expeditionary unit afloat in the Persian Gulf-Western Pacific region at all times. In 2001, troops from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit were among the first conventional U.S. troops going into Afghanistan after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
For the families, many of whom waited with signs and banners and American flags, Friday's return meant that the holiday season could begin.
Before this weekend, when Amy Kovats' older children — Abby, 4, and Zachary, 5 — would ask why the family did not have a Christmas tree, her answer was always the same: "We're waiting for daddy." Daddy is Maj. Keith Kovats; the couple also have an 11-month-old daughter, Megan.
The prospect of buying a Christmas tree was also on the mind of Kelly Phillipson, 27, as she waited for her boyfriend, Cpl. Matthew Hodges, 27. After a long embrace, the two began discussion of where to buy the best tree.
"A Christmas tree farm somewhere in San Diego," Phillipson said excitedly as the two continued intermittent hugging and kissing.
For Amanda Crosbie, 22, it was the first deployment away from her husband, Cpl. Leslie Crosbie Jr., 21. The couple have a 2-year-old daughter, Calieanne.
"It was hard," Amanda said. "You just have to stay strong and deal with it."
Ryan Campbell, 7, and his sister, Hailey, 4, wore T-shirts bearing a picture of their father, Chief Warrant Officer James Campbell, 30, who was returning from his fourth overseas deployment.
Campbell was part of the Pakistan relief mission. The landscape, he said, was devastated, the people desperate. "It was surreal," he said.
Robert Thomas, 91, a Navy veteran and survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, waited for his grandson, Cpl. Noah Thomas, 21. A member of what has been called the greatest generation, Thomas said he believes the current generation is made of the same stern stuff when the nation calls.
"If you hit the ball into their court," he said, "they're going to hit it back."