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Carrier Makes a Big Splash

Times Staff Writer

The aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan was just a few minutes from returning home Thursday after its first overseas deployment and Pat Stackpole was having trouble restraining her tears.

Stackpole and eight relatives had come from New York to stand on the pier at North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado and await the big ship’s arrival.

The Reagan -- 1,095-feet-long, with 4 1/2 acres of flight deck -- left Jan. 4 for its first western Pacific tour, including the Persian Gulf where it launched warplanes for 3,000 sorties to Iraq.

Stackpole’s son, Petty Officer 3rd Class Ed Stackpole, is a crew member. He enlisted after his uncle, New York Fire Capt. Tim Stackpole, was killed Sept. 11, 2001, in the collapse of the twin towers at the World Trade Center.

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“It’s been such a long six months,” said Pat Stackpole, her eyes filling with tears. “We’re here to show my son how much we respect what he’s done, what they’ve all done. We haven’t forgotten 9/11. God bless the Reagan.”

It was a morning for tears -- tears and welcome-home signs, American flags, two bands, crews from five television stations and a Budweiser Clydesdale horse.

Overhead flew a small plane towing a banner for a local watering hole. “Welcome Home USS Reagan. Ye Old Plank Inn,” the banner read.

Three other ships that were part of the Reagan strike group -- guided-missile destroyers McCampbell and Decatur and the cruiser Lake Champlain -- also returned, to their their docks at the 32nd Street Naval Station.

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It was a quintessential morning for San Diego, where the comings and goings of Navy ships, particularly the carriers, are part of the civic DNA and are considered big news, in war and peace.

But even at that, the Reagan’s return from its first forward deployment was special. As governor and president, Reagan would always end his campaigns in San Diego, which he dubbed his “lucky city.”

Hats with the motto “First One For The Gipper” were selling briskly. Military housing officials gave out small cardboard cutouts (“insert tab A in slot B”) which, when assembled, were miniatures of the carrier, complete with name, designation (CVN76) and Reaganesque motto (“Peace Through Strength”).

“It such a thrill to be here,” said Jeanette Merrill, 80, awaiting the return of her grandson Ronnie Davis, 24. “It’s been so lonesome without him.”

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Kyle Ruona, 12, who came from Charlotte, N.C., for the Reagan’s return, embraced his brother Chris, 23, as tears welled in his eyes. “Welcome home, brother,” he said.

Angelica Ross explained to daughter Sophia, 3, “That’s daddy’s ship.” It was a phrase heard often in the big crowd.

New fathers were accorded the privilege of being the first of the 5,000-plus sailors to disembark. Their wives, holding babies, were in a special section.

Leilani Henry, 19, held daughter Kayla, who is 3 months old, as she strained to catch a glimpse of her husband, aviation mechanic Edward Henry, 22, while the ship docked.

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“I just feel so relieved, " she said. “I was pregnant and alone. But now he’s home.”


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