BALTIMORE – A jubilant crowd waved "Welcome Home" signs and U.S. flags as the USNS Comfort (search) returned to its home port Thursday, more than five months after it left for the Persian Gulf (search) to support the war in Iraq.
About 320 military medical and support personnel -- most from the National Naval Medical Center (search) in Bethesda -- and about 60 civil service mariners from the Navy's Military Sealift Command arrived on the vessel.
"We need to celebrate everyone on this ship. Every one of the men and women standing on those rails saved lives," said Adm. Donald Arthur, commander of the National Naval Medical Center.
First off the ship was Hospital Corpsman Paul Manansala, 21, who greeted his 24-year-old wife, Amanda, and, for the first time, his 2-week-old daughter, Sophia.
"When we saw the coastline, I've just never felt better in my life," Manansala said, holding his daughter and smiling. "I'm just shaking right now. It's overwhelming. I just can't wait to get home."
The Comfort, a tanker converted to a 1,000-bed hospital with 12 operating rooms, left Baltimore on Jan. 6. During its deployment, more than 650 patients were treated on board, including about 200 Iraqi prisoners of war and Iraqi civilians.
In March, about 1,100 personnel were aboard. By early May, more than half had left the Comfort for Bahrain before returning to the United States.