Thursday marked a very happy holiday homecoming for sailors aboard USS Nimitz as the aircraft carrier arrived at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego after an eight-and-a-half-month deployment.
Along with the return of USS Nimitz came the return of Carrier Strike Group 11, Carrier Air Wing 11 and Destroyer Squadron 23.
During their deployment, the U.S. service members were in Afghanistan and the Red Sea. They were originally slated to return home in August, but their deployment was extended due to the crisis in Syria.
Finally on Thursday, after sailing 80,000 miles, the sailors and Marines finally docked and disembarked, running into the arms of their loved ones.
For local families, the highly-anticipated reunions were very emotional, and the best possible gift they could receive this season.
Navy wife Kara Young and her toddler, Hayden Young, anxiously awaited the arrival of Sgt. Ryan Young.
Kara said her mind and heart were racing, full of nerves and excitement in anticipation of that moment when she finally got to see her husband.
“It’s scary, but exciting. I’m so ansty,” said Kara. “It’s like I won’t believe it until I see him.”
Kara said it was tough when she learned her husband’s deployment had been extended. Still, she said they kept in touch constantly via email, and got a chance to Skype a couple of times.
Kara said she kept her husband in little Hayden’s thoughts, too, by showing photos of Sgt. Young to Hayden every night before bedtime to remind him of his daddy.
When Sgt. Young disembarked and Hayden saw his dad, the toddler ran into his arms, repeating “daddy” and pointing to the USS Nimitz.
Kara and Sgt. Young kissed and embraced, too, clearly overwhelmed with the family reunion.
“It’s unbelievable; I can’t describe the feeling – it’s the best feeling in the world,” said Sgt. Young. “I’m still shaking.”
Sgt. Young said the first thing he wants to do now that he’s back in San Diego is hit the beach with his wife and son.
Navy wife Rebecca Jaeger and her daughters, Madi Jaeger and Riley Jaeger, also waited with excitement for their sailor.
Madi and Riley said they couldn’t wait to see their dad.
“I’m just so happy, surprised I’m not crying,” said Madi. “I’m so excited. I’m waiting – I can’t wait.”
Rebecca said the deployment has been long for her family, and the uncertainty of the extension even tougher.
She said her family planned to grab breakfast together after the reunion – their first meal as a family in more than eight months.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” she added. “It’s excitement; it’s joy.”
Navy wife Elga Azofeifa and her daughters, 13-year-old Xiera Azofeifa and 7-year-old Yani Azofeifa, were also overcome with jitters waiting for their sailor to arrive in San Diego.
“I’m super excited. I can’t wait to see him. I’ve waited to so long to touch him, kiss him; I just can’t wait,” Elga said of her husband, her high school sweetheart. “It’s very overwhelming to see all our men home after their deployment was extended.”
Yani said she planned to kiss her dad and “not let go.”
The Azofeifa family said they planned to go home, watch movies and enjoy their time as a family following the reunion.
The focus of service members aboard USS Nimitz was Operation Enduring Freedom.
The crew lost a pilot and co-pilot in a helicopter mishap in September, which the Navy says is still under investigation. This made Thursday’s homecoming bittersweet for the crew, coming back with two less service members.
Rear Admiral Mike White said he was very pleased with the crew’s accomplishments over the course of the deployment, and the focus and positive attitudes of sailors aboard the aircraft carrier when they learned their deployment had been extended indefinitely.
“Our sailors understood the crisis in Syria was very serious,” said White.
White said they kept morale up by hosting special events on USS Nimitz, including a talent show and BBQ picnic, and making sure sailors were able to email with their families.
Now that local sailors have disembarked, USS Nimitz will leave San Diego and travel to its final destination: its homeport in Everett, Wash.