EVERETT, Wash. - After nearly 10 months at sea, the USS Abraham Lincoln returned to its homeport Tuesday morning, greeted by a delirious crowd of thousands waving signs of welcome, blowing kisses and carrying yellow ribbons and red, white and blue balloons.
About 3,000 sailors were aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which tied up to its home pier at Naval Station Everett shortly after 10 a.m.
"I think it's awesome," said Everett High School student Natash Kippenhan, 15, who was among the throngs at Naval Station Everett. "They went out for 10 months to protect a lot of people and now they get to come home."
Tulalip tribal members offered a welcome song as the vessel approached its berth.
"It's neat that we can do this," said tribal veterans coordinator Gene Zackuse, 54. "I was in the Vietnam conflict. We never had anything like this."
The first to disembark were to be the ship's 87 new dads, whose wives and babies were waiting at the front of the giddy crowd. They were to be followed by 13 winners of a "first-kiss" raffle.
The Lincoln's crew "just did a fantastic job in Operation Iraqi Freedom," said U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash. "The air war was critical to getting this done in three weeks, dropping 1.6 million pounds of ordnance and degrading enemy divisions. ... It made it a lot easier for the Army and Marine Corps on the ground."
"The women and men serving on the USS Lincoln honorably responded to the call of duty," said U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash. "I am proud of the job they have done. They deserve recognition and our thanks."
The 1,100-foot ship left Everett on July 20 for a six-month deployment in the Persian Gulf in support of the global war on terrorism. It was headed home in December, then in January, received orders to turn around and head back to the Gulf.
It ended up being one the longest deployments of a nuclear-powered carrier since Vietnam.
During the war in Iraq, more than 1,600 sorties were flown from the Lincoln. The carrier's battle group fired 116 Tomahawk missiles. No aircraft or Navy personnel were lost.
The Lincoln was one of five carrier battle groups that launched air and missile strikes against Iraq during the war. It was relieved by the USS Nimitz on April 10 and renewed its journey home.
President Bush swooped in on an S-3B Viking jet for an on-deck visit with the Lincoln's crew last Thursday, where he declared that the heaviest combat in Iraq was over and called the country's military missions there a success.
The Lincoln docked in San Diego the following day, where about 1,500 sailors got off the ship. It began its journey home to Everett on Saturday.
On board the ship Monday, as cooks were preparing a goodbye meal of T-bone steaks and breaded shrimp, sailors said they could hardly wait to see their families.
"I've had two nieces born and I finally get to meet them," Seaman Apprentice Amanda Harmon, 20, of Cass City, Mich., told The (Everett) Herald as she helped prepare the farewell feast. "I can't wait to see them; my sister asked me if I wanted to be godmother."
Seaman Apprentice Tauwnja Sawyer, 23, said she was looking forward to having some time to herself.
"I'm excited and I'm scared," she said. "I haven't been around civilians in so long, it's weird."
Sawyer won't get to step off the ship on its first day home, since she has extra duties to wrap up. She said she plans to call her family back home in Stillwater, Okla., on Wednesday, then check into a hotel room for some peace and quiet.
The Lincoln's scheduled arrival Tuesday came a day after a supply ship in its battle group, the USS Camden, pulled into its home port in Bremerton.
The other five ships in the Lincoln's battle group also have returned home: the USS Mobile Bay and USS Shiloh, two missile cruisers based in San Diego; as well as the destroyer USS Paul Hamilton, the missile frigate USS Rueben James and the nuclear-powered submarine USS Cheyenne, all based in Pearl Harbor.