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Last Troops Return to Pendleton From Gulf

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year after its Marines first started pouring into the Persian Gulf, the last 2,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton returned home Tuesday to the waiting arms of loved ones who said that now, their welcoming party can finally begin.

“I’ve been watching Marines come home for months, but I’ve still been sitting here wondering, what about my guy?” said Deona Bott, who on Tuesday joined several thousand friends and relatives to welcome home the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

This was the last of a series of homecoming celebrations to be staged at Camp Pendleton, where the first Marines who participated in Operation Desert Storm returned home March 9, but with all the balloons, American flags, banners and posters--like “The Proud, the Few, the 11th MEU"--it was not the least.

The unit left aboard Navy ships for the Persian Gulf on Dec. 1 and began the journey back home six weeks ago, virtually the last of the American forces who participated in Operation Desert Storm to leave the gulf region.

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This morning, four of the five ships that carried the Marines will dock at the 32nd Street Naval Station, where homecoming ceremonies will be held for 2,350 sailors. Their ships--the amphibious assault ship New Orleans, the dock landing ship Germantown, the tank landing ship Peoria and the amphibious transport dock Denver--are the last of the Navy ships that participated in Desert Storm to return to the West Coast, said Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Smallwood. The amphibious cargo ship Mobile will dock in Long Beach.

The Marines were part of the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which was credited for feigning an amphibious assault on Kuwait City, a successful bluff that forced Saddam Hussein to commit his troops to the Kuwaiti shoreline when the ground assault was mounted from Saudi Arabia.

The five Navy ships dropped anchor off Camp Pendleton Tuesday morning and troops disembarked--by landing craft, amphibious tractors and helicopters--throughout the morning, in full view of motorists along Interstate 5.

At various locations on base, smaller units were gathered one final time, standing at attention and listening to the final speeches as their frustrated loved ones hopped from foot to foot, waiting for the troops to be dismissed so they could being their leaves.

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“Oh, look, Todd just flashed the peace sign,” said Billie Jo Hamilton, the lance corporal’s mother, as she stood with her husband and daughter. “God, this wait has been frustrating. It’s been hell. But now, we finally have our grand finale.”

Teresa Hickey was waiting for her fiance, Lance Cpl. Eric Stickney, but already knew what he wanted, thanks to letters. “He says he’s ready for a Jack Daniels breakfast,” she said, laughing.

Crystale Woods rented a stretch white limousine to bring her from Garden Grove to pick up her husband, Lance Cpl. Michael Woods. He had no trouble spotting her as he marched with his unit to the final formation area--she was the one in white lame lace, poking through the limo’s sunroof.

“They’re doing all this marching and formation stuff, and it’s just killing me,” she groaned.

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Lynette Luppino, herself a Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, found her husband, Marine Cpl. Tony Luppino, in a flash, and they sank in a slow-motion embrace, oblivious to the commotion around them and the scream of FA-18 jets flying low overhead.

“It was tough to deal with the wait, but I knew this time would come,” Luppino said as his wife wiped away tears.

Some of the Marines said they knew re-entry into a domestic routine after spending nine months at sea will prove difficult.

“They flew counselors aboard the ships for a crash course (on a return to family life),” said Cpl. John Flowers, as he cuddled with his wife, Lisa, and their 2-year-old son, John. “They told us we’d have to work with our wives, kind of ease back into it and not take over the home.

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“After all, our wives have been running the house and paying the bills,” he said. “So, we’ll take it one day at a time. That’s what love is, taking life one day at a time.”


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