NORFOLK — The good-natured argument over hugs started on the pier.
Matthew Dugger, 11, spotted his stepdad aboard the returning amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge and wanted to be the first.
"What? I thought we talked about this," said Matthew's mother, Katti Burns, looking over at her son.
Before the hugs and tears, there was anticipation. About 4,000 sailors and Marines who make up the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group, which includes the amphibious transport dock Arlington and the dock landing ship Oak Hill, returned Tuesday to Norfolk Naval Station and Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in Virginia Beach after a seven-month deployment to the Middle East, the Mediterranean and African regions.
The group assisted with operations in Iraq against the Islamic State group as part of Operation Inherent Resolve and flew as many as 80 combat sorties and dropped bombs in support of coalition forces, Kearsarge commander Capt. Larry Getz said . The ready group "did a real nice job trying to help the Iraqis get Iraq back," Getz said.
The group's deployment was delayed by Hurricane Joaquin in October. Rain pounded the piers to mark its return.
In Norfolk, Nancy De La Fuente juggled 4-month-old daughter Camille and an umbrella while she waited for her husband, Jeremy De La Fuente, an airman aboard the Kearsarge. After seven months and with a sleeping infant on her shoulder ready to meet her daddy, De La Fuente said she didn't mind the umbrella. She was, however, looking forward to a long, uninterrupted shower.
"I'm just wondering where he is," De La Fuente said as she waited near the front of the crowd on the pier. "I'm wondering, you know, if he's going to be the first person off or the third."
The deployment included 2,200 members of the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The March 19 death of Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin offered new clues about the extent of the roles the Navy and Marines are playing in the U.S. strategy to root out Islamic State.
An enemy rocket killed Cardin at a fire base supporting Iraqi troops in the northern part of the country. He had just had helped set up the base while serving with a small detachment called Task Force Spartan.
"Although the death saddens all of us, they know that if it's not us, it's someone else," Getz said of the Kearsarge's sailors and Marines. "We hope and pray for those that are in the fight right now that we can get this job done as quickly as possible and bring everybody back."
Capt. Augustus P. Bennett, the ready group's commodore, said he did not know when the task force would return.
"It's certainly difficult to leave sailors or Marines behind, but that was what was needed by Central Command and those Marines are supporting the mission," Bennett said.
For those returning home Tuesday, getting there — and staying there — seemed to be of uppermost importance.
Danielle Prado welcomed Ensign Vanessa Prado home as the couple shared the Kearsarge's coveted "first kiss." Vanessa Prado, who completed her first deployment, said she was speechless after learning from her command master chief while on watch Monday night that she'd won the honor.
The couple planned to celebrate by checking out their new house for the first time. Danielle Prado said she picked it out over Facetime while in California.
"I literally got it yesterday," Danielle Prado said.
Lt. Jim Howland, a staff judge advocate aboard the Kearsarge, beamed as he scooped up his family — including wife Jackie, 3-year-old son Brody and 4-year-old twins Jimmy and Riley — into bear hugs on the pier. Howland, of Northern Virginia, called the deployment "awesome" and "challenging."
"We're just going to hang out, lock ourselves inside the house," he said.