USS Portland, Crew of 320, Returns Home From Iraq

Hundreds of families stood in the rain and fog Friday as the USS Portland steamed into port after delivering Marines and equipment to Kuwait. It was the first Navy ship to come home from the war.

The Portland with its crew of 320 came back to Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base a bit early because of a needed repair, ending a three-month mission.

"This is an answered prayer," said Cheryl Douglas, 47, of Virginia Beach as the ship approached. She was selected to give the first kiss to an arriving sailor, going aboard to embrace her husband, Chief Petty Officer Rickey Douglas, 42.

Rickey Douglas said the Portland crew's assignment was difficult because "from one hour to the next, you don't know what you're going to be doing."

A military band began playing patriotic music as the ship pulled into view about 7:30 a.m. People in the waiting crowd carried bouquets, American flags, cameras and umbrellas.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Tony Coen, the first sailor to disembark, agreed with Douglas that one of the toughest aspects of the mission was uncertainty.

"You're going to war," he said. "It's the unexpected. It's not like a regular deployment where you hit ports. It's hard being away from the family, facing the unknown."

The 553-foot ship returned earlier than planned because a high-pressure turbine on the ship went bad, said Lt. j.g. Kelley Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Atlantic Fleet Naval Surface Force.

Anderson stressed, however, that the ship completed its mission by delivering about 320 combat Marines and equipment from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade to Kuwait. The equipment and the Marines from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina will return later on other ships.

The Portland left the Little Creek base on Jan. 12. Crew members had just two days' notice that they were deploying and were told they would be gone three to nine months.

"Our hearts are here with our families," said Cmdr. Lawrence E. Creevy, the ship's commanding officer. "Our minds are out there with the rest of our shipmates who are out there doing their country's work."

David Roach, a boatswain's 2nd class from New Haven, Conn., was supposed to have been among the returning crew members. But Roach, 25, was flown off the ship in February after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He had surgery a week ago but was at the pier to welcome back his shipmates, pumping his fist in the air and shouting when the Portland came into view.

"There's a lot of good guys on there," Roach said. "These guys have done a go-to job."

The steam-powered Portland was part of the seven-ship Amphibious Task Force East, the largest amphibious surge force assembled in more than a decade, carrying about 5,000 sailors, 7,000 Marines and tons of heavy equipment and aircraft, the Navy said.

Even before the turbine problem developed, the Portland had been scheduled to be the first ship home from the task force because it had just returned to Little Creek in December from a four-month deployment to South America.

The crew has been gone seven of eight months.

Sailors who become parents while at sea usually are the first to get off the ship. But in the case of the Portland, the seven new fathers were flown home earlier, Navy officials said.