The people waiting for the USS Carter Hall pressed against the chain link fence along the pier. It was as close as they could get at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek as the dock landing ship returned after six months of deployment.
Several held hand-drawn signs up to the fence, with messages welcoming sailors home. It was the first time they, as well as dozens of others in the parking lot behind them, had seen their parents, children, spouses, fiánces and friends aboard the ship since it left Norfolk in February.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Bamie Campbell. She and her husband drove 15 hours from Louisiana to see her son Cedric Lee’s return. “I just thank God for my child, for all of them.”
The Carter Hall was one of three ships of the USS Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group. The group participated in maritime exercises as well as operations with NATO allies during deployment.
But the highlight, said the ship’s commanding officer Cmdr. LaDonna Simpson, was supporting evacuees from Afghanistan.
Simpson said this reminded her of the “human element” to their work as the ship assisted a thousand non-combatants leaving Afghanistan through Bahrain.
“I’m so proud of my sailors,” she said. “I would put them up against any ship.”
The USS Carter Hall is the first of the three ships from the Iwo Jima group to return. The USS San Antonio is due back to Naval Base Norfolk on Friday morning, and the flagship, the USS Iwo Jima, is scheduled to return to Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville early next week.
Hundreds of sailors aboard the USS Carter Hall were greeted with whistles and cheers when the Harpers Ferry-class dock landing ship first came into its homeport — as well as eventual embraces, kisses and bouquets of flowers once they deboarded.
In addition to Lee’s parents, Chandler Klinker, a friend who he met in Navy A School in Chicago, also came out for his homecoming. He said his favorite thing to do with Lee is sing, and that Lee has “a great voice.” But before that, he just wanted to tell him that he loves him, and to “give him a big ol’ hug.”
“We do what we do out there to keep everyone safe, but it’s a great feeling to be back with my loved ones,” said Stacy Washington, who served as a culinary specialist on the USS Carter. She was joined by several on Thursday: her daughter, son, sister, father and two best friends.
Simpson stressed that her sailors’ friends and family play a huge role in their lives, even when they’re thousands of miles apart.
“We know that we can’t do these deployments without our friends and family. We love them, we appreciate them and we would like to take a minute to pause and show them our support.”
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