By Kendra Helmer
Stripes Staff Writer
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan - Dan and Doris Hedges have two reasons to celebrate.
They were reunited Wednesday - on their first wedding anniversary - following the six-month deployment of the USS Kitty Hawk.
Doris joined a crowd of more than 1,000 who cheered as the aircraft carrier and its escorts, the cruiser USS Chancellorsville and the destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur, steamed into Yokosuka Naval Base at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Family and friends began arriving at daybreak, clutching balloons, flowers and signs to welcome home the sailors from their longer-than-expected deployment.
The 38-year-old, 86,000-ton Kitty Hawk and its approximately 5,000 crewmembers have spent almost six months at sea after leaving Yokosuka on March 2 for a what they thought would be a routine three-month deployment. The carrier unexpectedly was sent to the Persian Gulf to relieve the USS Theodore Roosevelt after it was sent to the Adriatic Sea in support of Operation Allied Force.
"He tried to warn me about deployments because he's been doing this for 16 years. But warning doesn't mean anything until it happens to you," Doris said while waiting for Chief Petty Officer Hedges, an aviation technician. "I can't say that I was surprised (about the extended deployment). I got this feeling that he would be gone longer than expected."
Some sailors, including Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Goldstein, missed the birth of their children.
During the 30 minutes it took the carrier to be moored Wednesday, Kami Goldstein was at the front of the crowd, swaying to music from two bands on hand to welcome the sailors.
Goldstein, who became a father June 15, saw his son for the first time Wednesday.
Nine-week-old Taylor slept amid all the commotion, arms and legs dangling from an infant carrier, a full head of red hair tucked under a baseball cap.
Kami and other mothers who gave birth during the deployment were among the first to be reunited with the fathers.
The new fathers lugged gifts - one of them had a huge Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal under his arm - to greet their new family members.
"It just seems strange and not real (to be back)," Goldstein, an X-ray technician, said once he made it through the crowd.
Also at the front of the crowd were winners of a "first kiss" raffle sponsored by the base's spouse club.
Michelle Elkins didn't want to spend any more time - even just an hour or so - apart from her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class Lewis Elkins.
She was one of the winners, shelling out $40 so her husband would be one of the first in line to disembark.
"My husband says it was a wise investment," said Michelle, who didn't get any sleep Tuesday night.
"I went out on the balcony (Tuesday) and saw all the signs (welcoming home the sailors), and it made me cry. I was too excited to sleep."
Five-year-old Alicia Elkins got in a few hours rest, but woke at 4 a.m. because, she said, "I wanted to get a good parking spot. I can't wait to hug and kiss my daddy."
Hundreds of children ran around the pier, adults dodging their colorful mylar balloons.
Shouts of "There he is!" and "Daddy!" could be heard over the music of the bands.
For the children, it was an exciting end to a sometimes confusing six months.
Several parents, like Carrie Lemmon, said they marked off calendars to help their children understand when the big homecoming would be.
Five-year-old Austin Lemmon has been patiently marking off a calendar for a few months.
He bounded out of bed Wednesday morning, knowing he had finally reached that day to welcome home his dad, Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert Lemmon, an air structural mechanic, home.
"I usually can't get him out of bed early in the morning," his mother said. "But today he got right up and said, 'My daddy is coming home; I'm ready to go!' "
Kristi Smith also had a way of helping her young, curly blonde-haired daughter keep track of the days until the return of Petty Officer 2nd Class Dennis Smith, an air traffic controller.
"I made a paper ring chain - like the ones you see on Christmas trees - and we pulled chains off to count the days," she said.
Two-year-old Lauren, clad in a white summer dress and lavender shoes, was perched on her mom's shoulders.
"He's waving to you; can you blow a kiss to him?" Kristi asked as Robert manned the rails, waiting to greet his family.
The Smiths' other child, 6-month-old Taylor, was only 2 weeks old when her father left.
"There's a lot he's missed . . . (Taylor's) sitting and crawling," Kristi said. "I've taught Lauren to point to photos of (the Kitty Hawk) and say, 'Daddy's boat.' "
Capt. Matthew Tuohy, aircraft commander, said in a news conference that the sailors were glad to be back after working really hard.
On Tuesday, the big homecoming was at Atsugi Naval Air Facility, Japan, for sailors from Carrier Air Wing FIVE, which is assigned to the Kitty Hawk.
The air wing flew 5,400 sorties from the Kitty Hawk during its stay in the Persian Gulf. The battle group arrived in the Gulf on April 20 to patrol the no-fly zone over southern Iraq.
About 1,300 of the sorties were flown over southern Iraq, where more than 20 tons of explosives were dropped during strikes against air defense and military sites.
Although more than 50 percent of the missions were flown in the face of heavy anti-aircraft and missile fire, the Kitty Hawk had no casualties or serious injuries.
Unless there is an international crisis, the carrier won't return to the Middle East for at least two years, Admiral Archie Clemins, commander in chief of U.S. Pacific Fleet, said last week.
The crew is to have 33 or 34 days of liberty before returning to work.
That's good news for Hedges, who was thinking of catching up on his sleep Wednesday.
But his wife had other ideas to celebrate their reunion and wedding anniversary.
"He can sleep on the ride home," she said with a smile.