NORFOLK -- Malayiah Edwards watched sailor after sailor step from the USS Kearsarge to a pier at Naval Station Norfolk unwittingly holding a sign welcoming her father home.
Malayiah's mother, LaQunda, told the 3-year-old she was going to the base just to look at ships. Good thing she hasn't yet learned to read.
When she caught sight of her father, Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Edwards, the little girl set off running.
"Daddy!" Malayiah called out, and the word trailed behind her as her father scooped her up into a hug.
The hospital corpsman was among about 1,000 sailors aboard the Kearsarge who returned Monday to the Navy base. The amphibious assault ship deployed Aug. 31 -- along with the Virginia Beach-based dock landing ship USS Oak Hill -- to aid in the response to Hurricane Harvey, if called.
That call didn't come, but hurricanes Irma and Maria did, destroying parts of Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in a back-to-back punch. The USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship formerly homeported in Norfolk, also assisted in recovery efforts before being released a little more than a week ago, along with the Oak Hill, which returned Oct. 29.
The Navy's hospital ship, USNS Comfort, is continuing to help in Puerto Rico and has treated about 1,250 patients, Rear Adm. Jeffrey Hughes, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 2, said Monday.
Sailors and Camp Lejeuene, N.C.-based Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit spent much of the last two months in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, assessing hospitals and evacuating patients, delivering food and water, flying search and rescue missions, and clearing roads, among other missions. Marine and Navy helicopters from the Wasp and Kearsarge also helped stabilize the damaged Guajataca Dam in the northwestern part of Puerto Rico.
Power had returned to only 41 percent of Puerto Rico 45 days after Maria made landfall Sept. 20, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. About 92 percent have cellphone service and 83 percent have potable water.
"We were honored to be of assistance," Capt. David Guluzian, commanding officer of the Kearsarge, said Monday. "It's a little bittersweet coming back because we know there's a lot more work to go on there, but other teammates are ready to go and are taking up that mantle, and our turn now is to come back here and prepare our ship for our future deployment in 2018."
Unlike a typical combat deployment, Kearsarge's more recent mission was an open-ended one. Families were left to wonder how long their loved ones may be underway, and few were on the pier Monday to welcome them home.
LaQunda Edwards was among them. She learned Friday that her husband was returning. While Malayiah learned the surprise early Monday, the couple's two older daughters would have to wait until later in the day.
Michael Edwards said he was ready to pitch in again with duties at home.
"It was definitely a good thing to be able to do something for an American community in a time of need," he said.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Daniel Gaona is from Santurce, a district outside of San Juan, Puerto Rico's largest city. Gaona, who is assigned to the Kearsarge, said his 90-year-old grandmother and an aunt still live there and have been without electricity since Maria.
He was one of about 100 Puerto Rican natives stationed aboard the Wasp, Oak Hill and Kearsarge who had the chance to see family while helping the Navy assess needs on the ground during their visits, Hughes said.
Gaona said he took his grandmother out to eat during his visit.
"It made her day, it made her week, her month, her year," he said.
--This article is written by Courtney Mabeus from The Virginian-Pilot and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.