1,000 Marines Return to Camp Lejeune

May 27, 2011

WHQR's Michelle Bliss attended a homecoming event where the family members of 50 men and women waited all day for the busses to arrive. She brings back this account.

In the shade of a blue-and-white striped tent, about a hundred family members are waiting to hear the humming and honking of busses carrying their Marines and sailors home. To stay busy, many are designing patriotic "welcome home" signs with markers.

Volya Stone had her zebra print sign professionally made two months ago.

"Welcome Home, Corporal Stone. XOXOXO. I Missed you. I Love You, Honey Bunny."

Stone's husband, Johnny, is returning from his first deployment. He left in August with the 26th MEU to help monsoon flood victims in Pakistan.

Stone waits with other spouses, including 20-year-old Savannah Highfill, who, according to her mother, Sonya, has been primping for weeks.

"She's had her hair done, her nails done, and she went and got a Mystic tan. She's really excited and picked out a new dress and all that good stuff."

Even though they haven't seen each other in person for nine months, Savannah and Chris have kept in touch on Facebook. That's also where she learned of Osama Bin Laden's death.

"Right after it happened, somebody had posted it and I was like, You know, that just means that my husband is going to be deployed again soon, somewhere. Something's going to happen.' People are all excited, but whenever a wife hears that, you know, that affects your husband's job."

Highfill never paid attention to conflicts overseas until her husband deployed. Despite the MEU's back-breaking work in Pakistan delivering 3 million pounds of food in 103-degree heat, Highfill didn't worry about their safety, not until they attacked al-Gaddafi's forces in Libya.

The MEU's commanding officer, Colonel Mark Desens, says the ship was in the right place at the right time to help out.

"We were at a very fortunate position early on, off the coast of Libya. We were able to get in there and start going to work, knocking some of his forces back, starting with the city of Benghazi."

Their airstrikes bought time, giving Libyan civilians respite from the regime's attacks. Desens says that of his six MEU deployments, this one proved most challenging because of the diverse missions they tackled.

Desens returned to Camp Lejeune at an earlier homecoming, so he's stopping by to greet the others as they arrive.

The announcement prompts everyone to stand and leave the tent's shade, assembling under the afternoon sun. The roar of engines can be heard before the busses round a corner. As their brakes squeal to halt, the crowd erupts in cheers.

From a forest of camouflage, Captain Rich Ulsh steps off the bus and spots his wife, Kerrin, and their two sons. Aiden is strapped into a stroller, but Connor jumps right into his father's arms.

"It kills me to see my little one so happy because we've had such a hard time. And, so it's very exciting that he's so happy. It's sad, too, because the little one doesn't know him."

Kerrin says she's ready to pick up where they left off. The MEU could set sail again as early as this fall, but no one's talking about that yet.

For now, the Marines and sailors are going home with their families or they're staying with their buddies in the barracks where homemade cookies and handmade cards from a neighboring elementary school await them.