On the dark runway at Kaneohe Bay, Heidi and Mitchell Embry embraced for the first time in seven months with their 8-month-old son, Ben, in his father’s arms.
"Oh, my God," said the corpsman, who last saw his son when he was about a month old. "He’s getting heavy."
Embry was the first to exit a plane full of Marines and sailors returning from Afghanistan last night. The flight was the second one bringing home members of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. All 1,000 or so should be home by Sunday.
Five Marines in the battalion were killed by homemade bombs during the seven-month mission, all between January and April, said Maj. Roberto Martinez, battalion executive officer. The unit also had an embedded British journalist die of a homemade bomb.
Martinez said the 1st Battalion performed an expeditionary mission in Nawa, living in tents, building connections with locals and training Afghan police.
The battalion was involved in the Marjah offensive, a campaign in Afghanistan’s Helmand province and the largest Afghanistan offensive since the U.S. invasion in 2001.
The Lava Dogs, as the battalion is known, were part of a similar offensive in Iraq during the house-to-house battle for Fallujah in 2004.
In Marjah they were the first coalition forces to enter the area, clearing a 30-square-mile area of the Taliban and preparing for the larger operation. They spent 30 days in the Marjah offensive, eventually establishing a patrol base at Five Points, a major intersection in eastern Marjah, Martinez said.
Martinez, who has been on seven deployments, including two in Iraq, said by the time the battalion was preparing to leave, locals were pointing out homemade bombs to Americans with signals such as piled-up rocks.
When Cpl. Alex Zach arrived in Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion in November, they set up tents and had no showers for about two months. By the time they left, they were living in fully equipped tents with air conditioning, showers and Internet.
"It was a huge difference," he said.
Away from the fanfare of the return, toward an American flag that stretched from the hangar’s ceiling to floor, Petty Officer 3rd Class Aaron James, another corpsman, pressed his forehead against the forehead of his wife, Yael.
"So happy to see my wife," said James, adding that they had kept touch by phone during the long deployment.
"Without that phone access, it would have been 10 times more stressful," he said.