An Emotional Return From War Zone for Sailors and Families

Times Staff Writer

With sailors spreading a huge American flag atop its flight deck, the aircraft carrier Nimitz returned home Wednesday after a deployment of eight months that included launching warplanes to strike targets in Iraq.

Sixty-five sailors who had never held their newborn children were given the honor of being the first of the ship's 6,000 crew members to disembark at North Island Naval Air Station.

Hundreds of family members had waited for hours, many carrying signs, including a 6-year-old girl's that said, "I Love Daddy." From the ship's public address system blared a recording of what had become the crew's theme on the long voyage home, "California Dreamin'."

A similarly emotional scene greeted sailors of the guided missile cruiser Princeton, one of the escort ships for the Nimitz, as it docked an hour later at the 32nd Street Naval Station here.

"It's like a first date; you get butterflies in your stomach," said Tatia Childers, who greeted her husband's return with a sign reading, "Stella Loves Groovemaster," a reference to their favorite movie, the 1998 romantic comedy "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." Navy families routinely endure the separation of overseas deployments, but the Nimitz battle group's lasted two months longer than the standard six months.

"Before Sept. 11, you knew when he would leave and when he would return," Childers said. "Now it's different. You're not sure when they're going or coming home. It makes it harder. After six months everybody was ready for them to be home."

Unlike the Nimitz, the Princeton arrived virtually unnoticed except for family members and other sailors. But Childers said there is no jealousy among the Princeton spouses. "It doesn't really matter whether they're on the big ship or one with only 20 sailors," she said. "They're all heroes to us."

Of the five carriers that launched planes during major combat in Iraq, the Nimitz -- and the rest of its battle group -- was the last to arrive in the Persian Gulf and the last to depart for home. It was also the first to deploy with two squadrons of one of the military's newest warplanes, the F/A-18F Super Hornet.

By all the numbers, it was a busy deployment for the Nimitz: 3.4 million meals served, 63,576 nautical miles traveled, 405,772 pounds of incoming mail, 10,350 visits by sailors and Marines to shipboard dentists (including 75 root canals and 725 extractions), 738 religious services, and 11,000 catapult launchings and "tailhook" landings.

"I'm sure the ship is ready to go back, but the crew needs some liberty," said Lt. Cmdr. Dora Staggs.

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