NORFOLK, Va. – Warplanes from the first aircraft carrier deployed after the Sept. 11 attacks returned home to tearful reunions Tuesday, as pilots from the USS Theodore Roosevelt saw their families for the first time in more than six months.
"It's great to hold my daughter's hand and kiss my wife. It's been a long time coming," said one pilot, as he hugged his family. "It seemed like we would never get here, but obviously we finally did."
F/A-18 fighter jets took off from the deck of the carrier earlier in the day, one by one leaving a trail of steam from the high-tech catapult that launched them. The planes went on to bases in Virginia, Florida, South Carolina and Washington.
The Roosevelt and other ships in its battle group are due to return to the Norfolk Naval Station Wednesday after a cruise that included air strikes against Afghanistan. Among the vessels due in were the guided missile cruisers USS Leyte Gulf and USS Vella Gulf, and the destroyer USS Peterson.
The oiler USS Detroit will return to Earle Naval Weapons Station in New Jersey. More than 7,000 sailors and Marines are aboard the ships.
The ships will also be returning an American flag from the site of the World Trade Center that was flown on the Roosevelt during its assignment. In a ceremony on the deck of the carrier Tuesday, the flag was handed over to two New York City firefighters by Navy officers.
"I will never forget the smoky odor as that flag was unwrapped in my office," said Capt. Richard J. O’Hanlon, the Roosevelt’s commander. "That single event, Old Glory flying high again over the remains of the World Trade Center, reinforced to freedom-loving people everywhere that America is strong."
The Roosevelt departed Norfolk on Sept. 19 with the recent horror of the terrorist attacks fueling the crew's determination.
"I was just ready to come out and get the job done," said Trevor Brazelton, 27, of Loudon County, Va., an aviation ordnanceman with VMFA-251, a Marine Corps F/A-18 fighter squadron.
Many of the Roosevelt's 5,500 sailors and Marines are barely out of high school and were on their first deployment. "I'm sure they all left with a little trepidation as to what was going to happen out here," said Rear Adm. Mark P. Fitzgerald, commander of the Roosevelt battle group. "They rose to the task."
The carrier's aircraft dropped about 2 million pounds of bombs. Pilots flew physically and mentally challenging missions that often lasted six to nine hours instead of the typical 90 minutes, as they had to fly about 500 miles from the ship just to reach Afghanistan, Fitzgerald said. All that flying also meant a lot of long hours loading weapons and maintaining planes.
"Everybody's got to make a stand sometime," Fitzgerald said. "Our young men and women chose to make a stand, for their families, for America, for their friends. They all realized this was going to be a life-changing event."
The Roosevelt spent 159 consecutive days at sea without a port call - a record for an aircraft carrier - during its deployment. USS Dwight Eisenhower set the previous record of 152 in 1980.
By the time the ship returns to Norfolk, the deployment will have lasted 189 days. After more than six months of endlessly scrambling up and down skinny ladders, maneuvering through narrow corridors and sleeping in tight quarters, the Roosevelt's crew is more than ready to go home.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Willie Price, 27, of Oceanside, Calif., has an extra reason to look forward to the homecoming celebration at the pier. He'll finally get to meet his second child, Olivia, who was born Nov. 25.
His wife, Jenna, sent him photos of Olivia, and he heard the baby cooing in the background when he called home Tuesday. But that can't compare to getting to hold Olivia for the first time and also being reunited with his 2-year-old daughter, Belle.
As one of about 50 sailors who became dads for the first time or once again during the deployment, Price will be among the first allowed off the ship when it docks Wednesday.
"I can't wait," Price said. "I don't think I'm going to sleep at all tonight."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.