'Pach is definitely back

As family and friends of sailors aboard the USS Camden gathered to welcome home 550 sailors after more than 285 days at sea, one word more than any other summed up the emotions they were feeling:


“We were up all night,” Stella Ruiz said as she waited just outside the gates of Pier Delta inside Naval Station Bremerton on Monday morning.

Ruiz was bundled in a thick sweatshirt to ward off the cool morning air as she and daughter Alithia Gomez waited to greet Alithia’s husband, Carlos Gomez. Alithia and her two boys, Angel, 7, and Matthew, 6, last saw Carlos in July. Much has changed since last summer, including the family’s new home in Silverdale which Carlos had yet to see.

Carlos and the rest of the Camden crew were scheduled to end their deployment in January, but it was extended during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“I’m gonna cry when the ship comes in,” Alithia Gomez said.

Various local dignitaries including Gov. Gary Locke, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, and county commissioners, dozens of media and 21 mothers with new arrivals were some of the first to see the bow of the Camden appear in the distance at around 8 a.m. And it wasn’t much longer before those waiting on the pier could begin to make out the sailors manning the rail in full-dress uniform, standing at attention aboard the ship with the nickname “Awesome Pachyderm of the Pacific.”

The sight was majestic as the ship slowly approached.

“There he is!” screamed Debbie Mercer as she finally spotted her husband, Master Chief Danny Mercer. Danny, holding a single rose, waved back to his wife and family from the ship as Debbie shouted his name over and over again.

She was the lucky winner of the “First Kiss” raffle drawing.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Debbie said of learning she’d get the first kiss when the ship arrived. “I went nuts.”

Debbie was escorted up the brow once the ship docked and the kiss she and her husband shared was met with shouts of approval from the crowd. It was the first of thousands to come as the rest of the Camden crew exited to greet their families.

Some of the most thrilling moments happened as the 21 new fathers aboard the Camden finally met their infant sons and daughters.

“It’s like a dream,” Seaman Gavin Langford said as he held his six-month-old daughter Bryana for the first time. “She looks like me.”

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