Homecoming: Families, friends greet troops on shore

Jovanni+Delatorre+waves+a+sign+in+the+air+welcoming+home+his+uncle+Robert+from+a+seven-month+deployment.+The+USS+Makin+Island%2C+along+with+the+USS+Pearl+Harbor+and+USS+New+Orleans+returned+to+San+Diego+from+duty+on+Thursday+morning%2C+June+21.+%28Photo+by+Scott+Allison%29
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Homecoming: Families, friends greet troops on shore

Jovanni Delatorre waves a sign in the air welcoming home his uncle Robert from a seven-month deployment. The USS Makin Island, along with the USS Pearl Harbor and USS New Orleans returned to San Diego from duty on Thursday morning, June 21. (Photo by Scott Allison)

Jovanni Delatorre waves a sign in the air welcoming home his uncle Robert from a seven-month deployment. The USS Makin Island, along with the USS Pearl Harbor and USS New Orleans returned to San Diego from duty on Thursday morning, June 21. (Photo by Scott Allison)

Scott Allison

Jovanni Delatorre waves a sign in the air welcoming home his uncle Robert from a seven-month deployment. The USS Makin Island, along with the USS Pearl Harbor and USS New Orleans returned to San Diego from duty on Thursday morning, June 21. (Photo by Scott Allison)

Scott Allison

Scott Allison

Jovanni Delatorre waves a sign in the air welcoming home his uncle Robert from a seven-month deployment. The USS Makin Island, along with the USS Pearl Harbor and USS New Orleans returned to San Diego from duty on Thursday morning, June 21. (Photo by Scott Allison)

Christopher Earley

Christopher Earley

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To call it a grand entrance would have been an understatement. But it would be a mistake to expect any less from a fighting force like the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

With the lights of the three ships of the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group barely visible in the dark morning June 21, the roar of hovercraft suddenly broke the silence, announcing to the dozens of family and friends assembled atop a bluff above the beach that the first wave of Marines were on their way ashore. Loud cheers erupted as the landing craft maneuvered perfectly into place on the ramp above the beach.

Among the waiting family members were Mike and Laura Judd, who made the long trip from Placerville to welcome home their granddaughter, 23-year-old sailor Janay Cherry, an LCAC crew member.

“Being able to see her come home is very patriotic and heartwarming,” said Laura Judd, who with her husband was accompanied by three generations of family members, including Cherry’s mother.

The 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, made up of more than 2,200 Marines and sailors, departed San Diego Nov. 14 with the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group, which includes the USS Makin Island, USS Pearl Harbor and the USS New Orleans. The deployment was also the maiden cruise for the USS Makin Island, one of the Navy’s newest and most fuel-efficient ships.

June 21 marked the end of the 11th MEU’s seven-month deployment. The Makin Island ARG returned to its home port of San Diego the next day

While in places such as the Middle East, western Pacific and the Horn of Africa, the 11th MEU conducted training operations with military units from various nations, including live-fire training in the Middle East and jungle and survival training in Cambodia and Malaysia.

“The Marines and sailors have continuously demonstrated the flexibility and adaptability of the Navy and Marine Corps team as they hit every pitch,” 11th MEU commander Col. Michael Hudson said in a statement. “This journey started over a year ago, during pre-deployment training and we leave here now proud of what have accomplished.”

Further inland at Camp Horno, friends and families of 3rd Battalion 1st Marines lined the street in front of the headquarters building. In one building, there was a full spread of food and drinks.

With helicopters flying overhead, the crowd waited anxiously as the Marines turned in their weapons at the armory, located just down the street. As a few trickled into the area, there were some emotional moments, and even some humorous ones.

“I’m home!” shouted one Marine as he nonchalantly walked past the crowd, which burst into laughter. “Thanks, everyone!” he said.

With help from the nonprofit group Operation Gratitude, families were given care packages, and for those with young children, boxes of Huggies diapers. Relying on donations from the public and corporate sponsors such as Target, the group sends care packages to troops overseas, their families and to wounded veterans.

Some members of the 11th MEU returned home to see new faces. Base officials reported that while the unit was deployed, more than 40 babies were born.

As small groups of men and women of Combat Logistics Battalion 11 arrived at their unit area, Navy corpsman Andrew Fay finally got the chance to hold his son, Andrew Ryan Fay Jr.

“I got to see him on Skype, but this is the first time I’ve held him,” said the smiling Fay, who held his son in his arms. “To say that I’m excited would be underplaying it.”

Fay’s wife, Cheryl, who is also in the Navy, dressed the baby in a white sailor outfit for the occasion. Fay said that after spending some time with Cheryl and Andrew, he was looking forward to getting some much-needed sleep.

Recognizing that some of the younger Marines and sailors were not able to have family and friends at their homecoming, Kyp Hughes, 11th MEU family readiness officer, organized a group of volunteers to make them feel welcome. The group went through the barracks rooms, taking care to make each bed, and even leaving gift baskets filled with drinks and snacks.

The 11th MEU and the Makin Island ARG officially turned over their duties May 5 to the 24th MEU and the Iwo Jima ARG, which includes the maiden deployment of the USS New York, a ship constructed of steel from the World Trade Center.

Christopher Earley is a San Diego freelance writer