When Jacki Lunderville said goodby to her husband, Jerry, last April, he was on his way to a Navy base in Puerto Rico for a routine seven-month deployment. She was paying $1.10 for unleaded gas, had never heard of Saddam Hussein, and had only a vague idea of where Kuwait was.
So when Iraq’s invasion put Kuwait on the map, “I had to look it up,” Lunderville said. “It was the first thing I thought of, that he would be sent there.”
She has shelved her maps for now. Jerry Lunderville went to the Persian Gulf all right, but early Tuesday he came home--one of only a few hundred troops to return from the gulf so far.
Lunderville was one of 300 Seabees in Naval Construction Battalion 4 who returned from Saudi Arabia to their home base at Port Hueneme early Tuesday, about a week after the first half of the unit arrived.
“We didn’t know for sure they were coming till last Friday,” Kristine Selle said. She and about 150 others--mostly women and small children--waited at the base chapel for the buses bringing the troops from Point Mugu Naval Air Station. There were cookies and hot coffee in the chapel, but almost everyone waited outside in the 45-degree chill, whooping it up when anything resembling a bus came by.
Selle, cuddling her infant son and trying to keep track of her 4-year-old, Robert James, said she had no choice but to bring her boys out in the cold to greet their father, Jack Selle Jr.
Had she left them at home, “I’d have been murdered,” she said. Her husband had never seen infant Jack III, born two months after Selle was dispatched to the gulf in August.
Like other family members, Selle said she had been calling the base all day for updates on the troops’ expected arrival, which had been delayed more than 14 hours. “I’ve been on a roller coaster all day,” she said. “They always leave on time, but they never come home on time.”
It was 2:30 a.m. before four white buses pulled into the crowded lot. The vehicles were mobbed even before they came to a stop. Green-uniformed men poured out, some squinting past television lights in search of familiar faces. Family members raced from bus to bus calling out names. At dozens of reunions in the parking lot and chapel yard, sweethearts embraced and children found themselves hoisted into the air by fathers they hadn’t seen in months.
When Selle finally found her husband, he took a long look at Jack III, then stooped down to present Robert James with a set of flight wings. “I missed my family,” he said.
Jerry Lunderville picked up son Joshua, 10 months, and realized how much the boy had grown since Lunderville left in April.
Some troops had no one to greet them. “Yeah, it’s sort of a letdown that nobody’s here,” Tony Ermovick, 29, said. He estimated that half of the troops are bachelors such as himself with no family in the area.
“But it’s good to be here, and hey, I’ll be out at the clubs tomorrow night,” said Ermovick, who plans to spend Christmas with his family in Tucson. Several of the returning Seabees said they were ready for a beer or two after their stint in Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is forbidden.
Ermovick said troop morale is excellent, and said what he enjoyed most was getting mail from strangers addressed to “any soldier.”
“It’s so neat,” he said. “People send you pictures and stuff. I wrote a lot. It’s good for morale because there is nothing to do there.”
Cmdr. Jim Corbett, the battalion leader, circulated among his troops and remarked that it was different from previous homecomings. “This one is special,” he said. “There was some danger over there.”
Corbett said he was not surprised that the unit was allowed to return home even though President Bush said last month that troops deployed to the gulf would not return until the mission is completed.
“We were already in a forward deployment when Operation Desert Shield began,” Corbett said, adding that most of the unit had been away from home for eight months, first in Puerto Rico and later in the gulf.
He said the battalion will probably enjoy its usual seven-month home stay before it is redeployed. It has been replaced in the gulf by a Seabee reserve unit from five southeastern states, he said. Two other 600-member battalions from Port Hueneme also remain in Saudi Arabia.
By 3:30 a.m., single men were still congregating in the chapel or the parking lot, awaiting assignment to bachelor housing on base. The families, most of whom live off the base in Oxnard or Port Hueneme, had gone home to get reacquainted after eight months of separation--an experience that some said can be awkward.
“It’s hard,” said Barbara Shaner, recalling the first few weeks after her husband, Jeff, had returned from his last stint overseas in Okinawa. “You get independent. You have to readjust.”
Jacki Lunderville said she and her husband have found one way to avoid trouble. “He has his checkbook and I have mine.”