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SAN DIEGO - Thousands of war-weary sailors streamed down the gangplanks of the USS Abraham Lincoln and into the arms of their families Friday after nearly 10 months at sea.
They were greeted with shrieks of welcome from the parents, wives, husbands and children they had not seen since they started one of the longest aircraft carrier deployments in recent U.S. military history.
"Life is about to change. But it's changing in a good way," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Seth Elrod, 21, of Griffin, Ga. His 4-month-old daughter, Grace, was born while he was at sea.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Aram Zakarian, 28, of Los Angeles had a bouquet of roses for his wife, Heather.
"I'm gonna tell her the basics: I love you, I miss you," he said. "There will be lots of I love you's."
Zakarian said he was most looking forward to the little things, such as watching television and simply eating dinner.
"Just putting my feet on carpet, that's huge," he said.
Zakarian also said he wanted to get to know his 5-year-old daughter, Celina, again. For nearly 10 months, they have had to make do with sharing photos and short video clips.
The sailors were visited Thursday by President Bush , who told them they were "homeward bound."
"Americans, following a battle, want nothing more than to return home, and that is your direction tonight," the president said after a dramatic arrival aboard an S-3B Viking jet flown by Cmdr. Skip Lussier.
Bush left by aircraft Friday morning before the vessel docked.
During deployment, pilots aboard the carrier flew thousands of bomb-dropping sorties from its deck as part of the war in Iraq . Meanwhile, 150 babies were born to sailors on the Lincoln, a point not lost on Bush during his speech. "Your families are proud of you, and your nation will welcome you," he said.
About 5,000 sailors were to disembark at North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego, while 3,500 others were to continue on to Everett, Wash., Saturday morning. While on board, they processed 3 million e-mails, 1.1 million pounds of mail, and sent 1,415 tax returns.
Many of the 5,000 sailors said it will be some time before they forget their last day away from port, and several praised Bush for making it special.
"It's like when you thought everybody forgot about you," said Djossou. "He came out here and made everything better because he didn't forget."
Airman Denise Burt, 23, of Grand Rapids, Mich., won't be among the ones leaving the ship in San Diego on Friday. She is part of the crew that will return the carrier to its home port of Everett, Wash., in a few days.
She hopes it won't be so long that her 13-month-old daughter, Amaya, forgets her.
"I sent an e-mail picture of myself and they told me she tried to grab it out of the computer," she said. "I guess that means she knows me."
The crowd of about 2,000, some of whom had waited since 4 a.m., erupted in cheers about 75 minutes earlier when the ship first came in sight.
Sara Campfield, 22, of Hanford, Calif., said her husband, Petty Officer John Campfield, missed his first anniversary and his mother's major surgery while on board. She said she was bracing for big changes over the next few weeks.
"I've been living by myself for 9 1/2 months, so I have to get used to living with another person," she said. "He's been living with 5,000 people and has to get used to living with one person."
Petty Officer 1st Class Jason Nowland, 33, of Sacramento was looking forward to a honeymoon with his wife, Ana. The couple have been married about a year but they've only been together a few months.
"We're going to go to Mexico," he said. He said his wife suggested a cruise for the couple. "I told her no."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)