View Full Version : Flags fly, pride flows as Connie flotilla welcomed back from war

06-04-03, 06:31 AM
Flags fly, pride flows as Connie flotilla welcomed back from war

By James W. Crawley, David Hasemyer, and Jeanette Steele

June 3, 2003

CORONADO The Fourth of July couldn't rival yesterday's red, white and blue extravaganza as 15,000 cheering people welcomed home the aircraft carrier Constellation and its 5,500 sailors and Marines from the war with Iraq.

Almost everyone sported a flag, from the white-clad sailors who waved the ensigns from the Constellation's flight deck to waiting relatives who fashioned the Stars and Stripes into patriotic head wear and banners.

It was the biggest San Diego homecoming of the war so far.

As the 1,079-foot-long carrier affectionately known as the Connie inched toward the dock nearing the end of a storied 41-year career Ben Latil focused on the flag furled in his hands at the Constellation's stern.

The split second the vessel moored, 9:53 a.m., the petty officer 2nd class tugged hard on the lanyard and raised the flag, declaring the Navy's second-oldest active warship safely back home at North Island Naval Air Station.

"I'm honored to do this," he said. "I see it as a privilege."

Not even yesterday's clouds nor the finality of the Constellation's last cruise before it's mothballed in two months could take the shine off the pierside carnival as the flattop, four escort ships and two helicopter units returned yesterday after an extended seven-month war cruise.

A few miles away, thousands more greeted the cruisers Bunker Hill and Valley Forge, destroyer Milius and frigate Thach when they returned to San Diego Naval Station at 32nd Street. Those ships brought home 1,350 sailors.

With the ships' return, about 16,000 of the more than 50,000 local sailors and Marines who deployed for the war effort have come home in recent weeks.

At the city's homecoming party downtown, hundreds listened to speeches, testimonials and music as the warships passed the Broadway Pier.

At North Island, people held signs to get the sailors' attention.

One sign, constructed from plastic pipe by friends of Constellation crewman Petty Officer 3rd Class Josh Silva, rose 21 feet high above the crowd.

"We wanted our buddy to see it from the ship, no matter where in San Diego we put it," Wally Wilson said.

From the flight deck, Cmdr. Ted Kaehler waved a red broken-heart-shaped placard stenciled "Lori." On the pier, Lori, his wife, held up a sign labeled "and Ted."

While she made the sign, it was her husband's idea for the two-part signal. "We got to see each other a lot quicker," said Kaehler, the Constellation's safety officer. A daughter of the couple met the carrier during a stopover in Hawaii and delivered her dad's part of the sign.

But it was Kristin Kerr's sign "Hey Kerley, Marry Me" that probably got the best response from her Constellation sailor, Airman Dan Kerley.

After finding her in the crowd, he answered by presenting an engagement ring.

"If we can get through this, we can get through anything," said Kerr, who has been dating Kerley for about three years.

Amid the whirlwind of reunions, 106 Constellation sailors met their sons or daughters for the first time.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Matt Acacio held up and kissed 51/2 -month-old Jazlien while his wife Jamie said, "It feels good that she can finally get to know her daddy."

Meanwhile, at 32nd Street, sailors aboard the Bunker Hill shared their war stories with family and friends. The cruiser and the destroyer Milius fired Tomahawk cruise missiles into Iraq at the beginning of the war.

Sailors described anxious moments as the missiles were fired.

"Everybody was asleep, it was early in the morning. They called us up and said we had a possible strike," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Luke Huber. "We fired the first chance we had."

Afterward, he said, "We were happy that we got it off and nothing went wrong. It was just a feeling of relief."

Bunker Hill weapons officer Lt. Dennis Farrell told his missile crew they were poised to alter the course of history.

"It was surreal, tense . . . and at the same time we knew the world's going to change tonight, it's no longer a peacetime environment," he said.

Of Farrell's four deployments, this one was the most meaningful, he said.

"It feels like we changed the world," he said. "That's what I keep telling the sailors they did: They are all heroes, and they changed the world."

For those left at home, the war was a time of fear and pride.

Kay Olsen still remembers the fear that gripped her when the Bunker Hill, her son's ship, fired Tomahawks.

"When we first heard it, it was kind of a shock, and so it was very emotional, a lot of tears at that point," said Olsen, who flew from Chicago to welcome her son, Calvin, 28.

"Then we saw pictures of it on the fronts of magazines, and it was pretty impressive. I was pretty proud of him," she said.

With crowds cheering from Point Loma to the gridlocked San Diego-Coronado Bridge, the welcome impressed the returning sailors.

"This has been my third deployment and by far the greatest one, and coming home has been the greatest feeling. Not only for what we accomplished, but just the support we've had and the reception," said Lt. Corey Keniston of the Bunker Hill. "It's just amazing."

There was a bittersweet aspect to the reunion because it ended the Constellation's 21st and final deployment.

The decommissioned carrier will be put in "mothball" status at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in the state of Washington and will be berthed beside other old warriors such as the carriers Ranger and Independence.

In July 2004, the soon-to-be-completed Ronald Reagan will arrive here to replace the Constellation. The Reagan will be commissioned next month and undergo nearly a year of testing and training before its arrival.

The Constellation's skipper said the crew is proud of what the carrier's accomplished during its final deployment.

"The hull will be decommissioned, but the Constellation spirit will live on," said Capt. John "Fozzie" Miller.

James W. Crawley:
(619) 542-4559; jim.crawley@uniontrib.com

David Hasemyer: (619) 542-4583; david.hasemyer@uniontrib.com

Jeanette Steele: (760) 476-8244; jen.steele@uniontrib.com