Home at last


Contributing writer

Nothing could deflate the enthusiasm ricocheting around a hangar Friday afternoon at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Not even the announcement that planes bringing sailors home from San Diego and the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln had been delayed, again.

The first delay came in January when the Lincoln was ordered back to the Persian Gulf; their deployment reached almost 10 months. The second delay came when flights from California originally were due in early afternoon didn’t touch down until early evening. But after waiting extra months for crews from VAQ-139 Cougars and Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Detachment’s SeaOp Det, anxious families knew they could hold on one more hour.

While people waited, a Navy band entertained. Ubi the Clown twisted balloons for kids. Families traded war stories as they put finishing touches on signs.

Karla Smith and sons Hunter, 13 months and Tyler, 4-years, were ready to greet Petty Officer 2nd Class Ronnie Smith.

“This is our second cruise and it went OK,” Karla Smith shrugged. “The boys and I spent six months in Oklahoma with family.”

The family’s immediate plans were to travel to Oklahoma. “Mom and Dad will watch the boys so Ronnie and I can go to Hot Springs, Arkansas, for a few days,” Smith said. “It will be good to reconnect again.”

Lenora Vincent was ready for her husband’s first deployment to end. She felt she handled the months of separation better than she had expected. Her husband John is an aviation ordnanceman. ”Knowing he was working with bombs was always worrying,” Lenora said. At 3 p.m. Friday, she and John spoke by phone. “He was sitting in San Diego waiting for a plane, with everyone else. John told me ‘I don’t care if dinner tonight is Domino’s as long as you are there’,” she smiled.

“This is David’s last cruise — thank God!” Rox-Ann Henley said. David Henley ran the aviation electronics shop below decks. His wife said their family has been through seven or eight cruises. “This deployment was more difficult with the kids being older,” Rox-Ann reflected. “Sabrina, Brenton and Darren are teenagers now. Mommy always had answers when they were little.Several times I thought I was at the end of my rope but I tied a knot and hung on,” she added.

She was thankful that during David’s “twilight cruise” he was not working on the flight deck. Her husband will retire at the end of July and the family will move to Burlington, N.C.

For her husband’s last Navy homecoming, Rox-Ann admitted she might have gone overboard. “At least 200 feet of yellow ribbon is over everything,” she laughed. Twenty-two yellow bows decorate the family’s Oak Harbor yard: 21 are for her husband’s years of service; one is for her nephew, a Marine stationed in Bagdad.

“I have a another roll of ribbon but my kids said ‘Mom, please no,” she said.

During the 10 months the Lincoln was at sea, many other units were just as busy as the deck crews.

Carol Geiler’s husband Jason was stationed with AIMD aboard the Lincoln. His command provided maintenance and technical support to the airplane crews. “A lot of time the guys get overlooked but they are working just has hard, just as long, as everyone else is,” Carol Geiler said.

Sayeh Azarpay hadn’t slept for two days. “I’m too nervous. My emotions are overwhelming and I know I’ll cry when I see Jay,” she said. Azarpay and Jay Ellis were to be married April 5 at Marysville’s Opera House.

The wedding has been rescheduled for July 26 in Lake Stevens. The couple won’t be registering for china at the Bon Marche — Jason picked out a set when the ship made a port call in China. “He said it was something simple,” Azarpay said. She said worrying and hectic cancellations for the wedding didn’t matter to her.

“All that matters is Jay being home,” she said. “I’ll be happy as long as I can be close to him and not have to learn everything by e-mail.”

Hangar doors slowly open

Cheering families were barely held back by a thin rope, as the first plane taxied in. People waved welcoming signs and stretched their necks for the best views. As sailors walked across the flight line, families broke and ran. Parents twirled children who had shot up and lost teeth. New fathers cradled babies they had only seen on small computer screens, marveling at 10 fingers and 10 toes. Moms waltzed around with beaming toddlers.

Lt. Bryan Taylor was almost in the hangar before his wife Jennifer found him. “I ran all the way from the parking lot,” Jennifer gasped. “We heard so many different times today, that I almost didn’t make it.”

Lt. Taylor should have been home Wednesday with the other Prowler crews. Due to a plane “glitch,” Taylor spent two more nights on the Lincoln. Despite the honor of meeting President George W. Bush, Taylor seemed more than happy to be home.

“We’ve had big disappointments and all the time changes were harrowing today,” he said. “But that’s over.”

A lot has happened in 10 months but the Taylors won’t miss at least one special date: their second wedding anniversary is this week.

A few minutes later the second plane landed. The rush for that group of sailors was smaller but no less intense.

Andrew Elstand, 4, crushed his face into his father John’s shoulder boards. Andrew nodded when asked if he missed his father a lot. “We’ll go home and pway twains,” he shouted.

For several hundred Navy families, it was time to adjust to life together again.

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