CAMP PENDLETON -- Six-year-old Michael Merchant flung his "Our (heart) is complete" poster at his father.
"Hold my sign, dad," he said, as he and his twin brother, Zeke, rushed toward their mom, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Kim Dobrzyn, who was standing in formation at the seaside base. Dobrzyn reached down and hugged her boys for the first time after a six-month deployment.
"It was hard," the 42-year-old said Monday. "I missed the milestones -- their sixth birthday, their first day of kindergarten."
Dobrzyn was one of a 50-person command staff that on Monday returned from the half-year deployment to the Middle East. Their return marked the first wave of about 2,300 Marines and sailors who left Camp Pendleton as part of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force operating at two bases in Iraq to support U.S. Central Command.
The remaining personnel will return over the next two weeks. A week ago, another 2,300 Marines and sailors deployed to replace the returning group.
The task force -- consisting of ground combat, air combat and logistics combat -- did crisis response within the Central Command, said Lt. Col. Jay Matt, executive officer. Crisis response could mean anything from combat operations to support roles in intelligence and communications.
The group operated from Al Taqaddum and Al Asad air bases; Al Asad is about 50 miles from Ramadi and was the second-largest U.S. military airbase in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
That meant watching out for issues in multiple countries including Jordan, Syria, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Yemen, Oman, Iraq and Turkey. The task force supported Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State of Iraq, and supported the tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel.
Marines also provided diplomatic security forces at U.S. embassies and worked with the Jordanian Armed Forces to develop a quick reaction force. This deployment was the second task force since the Marine Corps established it in May 2014 for its first deployment in September of that year.
President Barack Obama last week announced he would extend the U.S. military's role in Afghanistan and keep the current force of 9,800 troops through most of 2016, amid a surge in Taliban attacks. But Camp Pendleton officials said they don't know yet whether that could mean more Marine deployments from the base.
While the climate in the region may not be as volatile as Iraq was in 2006 with the constant threat of shooting and improvised explosive devices, Matt said having Marines ready to defend the interests of the United States is critical.
"Anywhere you can have Marines that can respond in a timely manner, that's a benefit," he said. "The Middle East is always dangerous. The level of danger is not where we are, but what we're doing."
For Marine Sgt. Adam Becker, getting home meant he could relax. Becker, whose job it was to make sure the Marines had all their gear and supplies for missions, was one of the first to head over in March.
On Monday he was swarmed by his children, Devin, 5; Piper, 1 1/2; and Axl, 1. His wife, Samantha, wasn't far behind. Besides cuddling with the family, Becker was ecstatic to see green grass and palm trees.
"Dad, I want to play Star Wars Lego," said Devin, clinging to Becker. "I just got it and we can go on different missions."
Cpl. Bryan Benham was met by his wife, Brooke, and several of his Marine Corps comrades.
"Coming home to an empty house was the worst," Brooke Benham, of Temecula, said. "It was hard not having my best friend with me."
The couple met at the Marine Corps Ball in 2012 and were inseparable after that.
"We mostly emailed every day," she said. "There was a period when I didn't hear from him for three weeks. I cried when he finally answered. I was so relieved."
For Dobrzyn, returning to Camp Pendleton meant vacation time in a cottage at Del Mar Beach for a few days before heading back to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where she's based.
Dobrzyn joined the special task force as a medical plan officer. Meanwhile, her husband, Matthew Merchant, a retired Navy Corpsman, stayed home with the twins.
"This is the hardest deployment I've ever been part of," he said. "It's just amazing how much stuff goes on in daily chores."