Memorial Day a Reunion for Thousands of Marines and Families

Memorial Day was a day of celebration for thousands of Marines, sailors and their families who were reunited at Camp Lejeune (search ) after a long, nine-month deployment that kept them apart.

Loved ones of the 2,300 in the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (search) gathered at the base pier at Onslow Beach (search) Monday morning, waiting for the three ships carrying the sailors.

Meanwhile, President Bush remembered the country's fallen heroes in the traditional Memorial Day wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown. After laying the wreath, Bush paid tribute to those who died at war, noting particularly "recent loss and recent courage" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Today, we recall that liberty is always the achievement of courage and today we remember all who have died, all who are still missing and all who mourn," Bush said.

In New York, the wives of two Marine Corps pilots killed in Iraq dropped a Memorial Day wreath into the Hudson River at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum's annual ceremony.

A light drizzle didn't stop thousands of people from gathering for a parade along flag-lined Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, Mich., a Detroit suburb in which about 30 percent of residents claim Arab ancestry.

Akram Al-Mohammed, who came to the United States from Iraq with his wife eight years ago, said attending the Memorial Day events was a way to say thank you to the soldiers who helped liberate his native land.

"We came to share the celebration together with the American people," Al-Mohammed said. "This year we are very happy because our old president is gone. We've got freedom in our country."

In Waterford, Conn., the parents of a Marine killed in Iraq who waited weeks to hear word about his fate went forward with a parade despite heavy rain. Paul and Tan Patchem, the parents of Cpl. Kemaphoom Chanawongse, took part in a parade that wound through mostly empty, soaked streets.

Joy was the predominant emotion at Camp Lejeune, where the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit returned after leaving in August for a six-month routine deployment that turned into a war-driven nine months.

It was the first major Marine Corps unit to return to the United States from combat in Iraq.

Monday marked other firsts for the people awaiting a reunion. It was the first wedding anniversary for Lance Cpl. William Packard and Christina Packard, and the first time William would see the couple's 2-month-old daughter, Makayla.

"As long as he's coming home, that's the best anniversary present you could have," said Christina, 18, who stood patiently by the ocean in the pouring rain. The Packards found out she was pregnant in August just before the unit departed. Christina moved to Westerville, Ohio, to stay with her parents while he was gone.

"It was hard, but I knew he was coming home and everything would be OK," she said as she and her family — cousins, her husband's mother and grandparents — shrugged off the muggy rain.

The sailors were riding transport craft to shore from three different ships. First to hit the beach were about two dozen Marines driving a small convoy of Humvees and trucks. The group was led off the landing craft by a small bulldozer flying a large American flag.

The USS Austin was the first of the unit's three ships to arrive. The Tortuga, carrying 800 troops, was close behind, but the return of the Nassau — carrying about 1,100 Marines — was delayed by searches for two sailors who went missing over the weekend.

For those who made it ashore, even the damp sand of Onslow Beach was a welcome sight.

"It's good to see U.S. soil, really good," said Cpl. Travis Hoots of Roodhouse, Ill.

William Packard and Travis Hoots were among a number of the returning Marines who were getting their first look at sons and daughters born while they were away.

Hoots' wife, Jamie, met him on the beach carrying their 7-month-old son.

"I spent a lot of nights thinking about what this day would be like," Hoots said as he looked at his new baby. "I'm just sort of dumbfounded."

Keith Vaught, a dental technician 2nd class, was a bachelor when he went on his first deployment. Now he and his wife, Rhonda, have a 2-year-old son, Zachary, and a 7-month-old daughter, Amari.

"While I'm out there, I try not to think about it — stay focused on the job," Vaught, from Pearisburg, Va., said. But seeing his daughter for the first time is "like an explosion inside."

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit left North Carolina aboard three ships in August, expecting a routine six-month patrol in the Mediterranean Sea. They were told in February that their deployment had been extended, then were sent to Kuwait to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. The unit was in battle less than 24 hours after it arrived.

The unit also saw duty in Kosovo, Kenya and northeast Africa. In all, about 15,000 ground troops from Camp Lejeune were sent to Iraq and Kuwait.

Communities all around Camp Lejeune had prepared for the unit's arrival. In some towns, small American flags were stuck into the ground on highway medians. Outside the base's main gate, bed sheets with welcome messages painted on them lined a fence at a military housing complex.

Yellow ribbons were everywhere; wrapped around trees and traffic signs, on cars and houses.

The joy of the return was tempered when a sailor fell off one of the three returning ship, the USS Nassau, some 900 miles from the Virginia coast and another went missing aboard the same ship.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Dwayne Williams, 23, of Philadelphia fell from the Nassau on Friday while chasing a football. Petty Officer 1st Class Shaun Dale was reported missing Sunday from the ship, which was carrying Marines to North Carolina before heading to its home port in Norfolk, Va.

Fox News' Catherine Donaldson-Evans and The Associated Press contributed to this report.