Three hundred tired but jovial Seabees from Port Hueneme returned early Wednesday morning from Saudi Arabia--the first group from the naval construction base to come home since the U.S. buildup began in the Middle East.
At least 300 more men from Port Hueneme’s Naval Construction Battalion Center, which specializes in building military bases from scratch in weeks, are expected to return by Christmas.
“It’s good to be home,” said Lt. Cmdr. Michael Schiffner, who supervised the group in Saudi Arabia. “We’ve been gone a long time, and we’ve missed our families.”
According to base officials, the Seabees traditionally deploy for seven months at a time, which is the reason the group was able to return home before other military units called up in California since the start of the Iraq crisis.
The battalion had spent four months on a mission in Puerto Rico before they were sent to Saudi Arabia in mid-September to assist with Operation Desert Shield.
“We always felt that they would be coming back on time,” said Capt. R.J. Pearson III, commanding officer of the Seabee base. “Even when the word broke that no units would be deploying home, we felt the Seabees would be the exception. It’s traditionally what has been done.”
After the next group of Seabees returns from Saudi Arabia next week, there will be 1,200 Seabees from Port Hueneme remaining in the Middle East. The deployment is the largest from the base since the Vietnam War.
Base officials said they are unsure whether the group will be sent back to Saudi Arabia when its deployment rotation begins again in seven months.
The 300 Seabees who returned Wednesday morning spent 30 hours traveling from Saudi Arabia in a chartered World Airways DC-10. They stopped in Rome and in Maine before arriving at Port Hueneme shortly after 2:30 a.m.
Despite the early hour and the long trip, the men were spirited. Some departed the plane cheering. Others laughed and joked as they scurried aboard buses that would shuttle them to waiting families and friends.
“The first thing I’m going to do is kiss my wife and kids,” Jim Albright, 36, of Chicago said. “Then I’m going to have a nice, cold beer.”
“I can’t wait to sleep in a comfortable bed and have a nice meal,” Dominick Bambace, 21, said. He paused to listen to the cheers of a few passing sailors. “This a happy bunch of Seabees.”
Rich David, 28, of Modesto added: “I’m just happy we made it home for the holidays. I was afraid we wouldn’t.”
Bambace said he was looking forward to shedding his chemical weapons gear. Surprisingly, most of the troops were still toting their masks in pouches as they left the plane.
“We’ve had the guys carry their gas masks 100% of the time,” Schiffner said. “I’m going to have to start carrying a purse now, I’m so used to having it with me.”
Lloyd Potter, 30, said his biggest fear was that they would be attacked with chemical weapons while in Saudi Arabia.
“Sometimes the air-raid sirens would go off accidentally,” Potter said. “It would just send panic through the camp. We would grab our gear and our gas masks and run for the shelters. Twenty minutes later, we would find out it was a mistake. What a bad feeling. It took a while to come down from that.”
Bambace said the threat of a terrorist attack was also a concern at the group’s base in eastern Saudi Arabia.
“I was more worried about a terrorist attack than anything else,” Bambace said.
But Schiffner said the men were safe most of the time.
“We were in an area we were able to fortify,” he said.
Schiffner said the soldiers spent much of their time building tents for the troops.
“We did a lot of tent, camp construction for the Marines,” he said. “We built those all over eastern Saudi Arabia.”
Schiffner said the group also built an aircraft landing strip, storage facilities for weapons and a road.
“The work was great,” he said. “We were literally working from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week.”
As Schiffner talked with a few reporters and base officials on the airport Tarmac, several buses drove by, shuttling Seabees away.
One man leaned out the window.
“Merry Christmas,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”
Schiffner smiled and added: “It’s good to be home for the holidays.”