Huddling on the pier on a frigid April morning, I shivered and wished I had thought to wear a winter coat instead of a light spring jacket. Who would have expected it to be 40 degrees in Norfolk, Virginia in April? Beside me, my teenage daughter yawned exaggeratedly, reminding me that it was not her choice to be awake and at the base by 7:00 AM. Neither one of us was quite as excited about this homecoming as we should have been. My husband had flown out to meet the ship toward the end of its long deployment, so we hadn’t experienced the many months of separation that other families had. Still new to the command, we hadn’t yet met many of the other families and stood off to the side, feeling awkward and out of place.
Before too long, however, we were caught up in the excitement of the families gathered on the pier. Proud parents held cameras high, ready to catch a photo of their young Sailor’s first homecoming. Young moms cradled newborns and kept careful watch on wound up toddlers. Everywhere there were banners and flags welcoming Sailors back home. Soon even my usually “too cool for school” teenager was waving a flag and jumping up and down, craning her head to catch the first glimpse of the ship.
A few minutes before 8:00, a roar went up from the crowd as the ship appeared in the harbor. Despite the wind and cold, Sailors in their summer whites stood proudly at attention along the ship’s rails. Families waved their banners wildly, hoping to catch their Sailor’s eye. I knew from experience that the crew couldn’t wait to rush off the ship and find their waiting families, but unfortunately guiding a massive warship into a slip isn’t quite as easy as parking a car. Minutes dragged on as the ship maneuvered carefully into place and secured to the pier.
Finally, the ship secure and the gangplank in place, Sailors began streaming off the ship. First, the lucky winner of the “First Kiss” raffle sprinted off the ship and into the arms of his thrilled wife. Then the new dads emerged to meet the babies born during the long months the ship was away. Finally, the rest of the crew began to disembark. All around us, families were reuniting, sharing their first hugs in months. Tearful moms held on to their Sailors as proud dads beamed and shot photos. Other Sailors knelt before shy preschoolers who barely remembered the parent who’d been gone for so long. Young moms gladly handed off heavy toddlers to dads who couldn’t believe how much they’d grown.
My daughter and I stood in the middle of the crowd, taking it all in. The excitement and emotion of families reuniting after such a long time was overwhelming. Right then, I realized how privileged we were to share in this moment. We might not know everyone there, but we were still part of the same family – the military family. I glanced at my daughter to see if she was feeling the same way, but she was looking past me, toward the ship. She grabbed my arm and without a trace of teenage boredom in her voice, squealed, “Look, Mom! There’s Dad!”