Three hundred tired but jovial Seabees 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 a few weeks, are expected to return by Christmas.
“The first thing I’m going to do is kiss my wife and kids,” said Jim Albright, 36, of Chicago. “Then I’m going to have a nice, cold beer.”
The Seabees traditionally are deployed for seven months at a time, which is why the group was able to come home before other military units called up in California since the start of the Iraqi crisis. The unit had been on assignment in Puerto Rico before being routed to Saudi Arabia in mid-September as part of Operation Desert Shield.
“We always felt that they would be coming back on time,” said Capt. R.J. Pearson III, the commanding officer of the Seabee, or Construction Battalion, 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 another group of Seabees returns from Saudi Arabia next week, 1,200 from Port Hueneme will still remain in the Middle East--the largest deployment from the Ventura County base since the Vietnam War.
The 300 Seabees who returned Wednesday morning spent 30 hours traveling from Saudi Arabia in a chartered World Airways DC-10. They stopped over 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.
“I can’t wait to sleep in a comfortable bed and have a nice meal,” said Dominick Bambace, 21, as he paused to listen to the cheers of a few passing sailors.
Bambace, who like many of his companions still clutched his gas mask, said he looked forward to shedding his chemical weapons gear.
“We’ve had the guys carry their gas masks 100% of the time,” Lt. Cmdr. Michael Schiffner said.
Lloyd Potter, 30, said the biggest fears at their camp in eastern Saudi Arabia were the threat of terrorist strikes or being attacked with chemical weapons.
“Sometimes the air raid sirens would go off accidentally,” Potter said. “It would just send panic though 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. . . . It took a while to come down from that.”
But Schiffner said the men spent most of their time in well-fortified areas.
The Seabees’ job, which had them working sunrise to sunset seven days a week, was to erect tents and camps for Marines and build an aircraft landing strip, weapons storage facilities and a road.
As Schiffner spoke on the airport Tarmac, several buses passed, shuttling the soldiers away to meet their families and friends.
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.”