USS JOHN F. KENNEDY RETURNS Sailors on the Carrier Are ... Home at Last Ship Returns to Mayport after Spending 6 Months at Sea

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Petty Officer 2nd Class Mike McCarthy leaned to a buddy next to him on the rail of the USS John F. Kennedy yesterday.

"Look and see if you can see my wife," he said. "She's the prettiest one on the dock."

The sweetness of reuniting with family and home was as obvious as the grin on the 29-year-old air traffic controller's face as the last of thousands of sailors and aviators pulled into Mayport Naval Station yesterday morning after six months at sea.

Thousands of family members and friends waited on shore, yelling and jumping, wielding cameras and holding signs of love and welcome as the Kennedy eased to the dock.

The Kennedy, recently returned to active rotation among the nation's carriers, finished a deployment to the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf that was marked with military action and tragedy.

In addition to losing a sailor who fell overboard in November, the carrier lost two aviators that month when their S-3B Viking aircraft crashed after it was launched.

On Friday, an F-14 Tomcat was lost when the plane went down during a training mission near Bermuda. The fighter's two crew members ejected successfully.

During the deployment, the Kennedy saw action retaliating against Iraqi anti-aircraft and surface-to-air missile sites in November.

Rear Adm. Michael "Carlos" Johnson, the battle group commander on board the Kennedy, said the aircraft carrier was involved in 11 strikes against the artillery sites.

Johnson said the Kennedy left for deployment in September with three new weapons systems that used satellite global positioning technology to improve efficiency.

"Those weapons proved invaluable," he said. "This crew got to exercise everything they trained for. We were very skillfully employed."

The carrier's 2,850 crew members, the 850 assigned to the air squadrons on board and the 1,235 Navy personnel aboard four other ships in the Kennedy's battle group have been returning to Jacksonville Naval Air Station and Mayport since Friday.

The arrival of the Kennedy marked the end of the battle group's homecoming.

For those aboard the carrier yesterday, anticipation was high, but modern Navy crews have had more contact with home than those in the past enjoyed.

With e-mail and better telephone communications, sailors and families can keep in better contact.

"The Navy has gotten a lot more user-friendly, so to speak," said Petty Officer 1st Class Jim Giunta, 34, an aviation bosun's mate.

"You see morale decline a little bit when the e-mail is down and the phones are down," said the 16-year veteran. "It's not as bad as it used to be. My first deployment we had to rely on mail."

After meeting his wife and 11-month-old daughter, Giunta was planning lunch at a favorite and much-missed fast-food restaurant and dinner out with his wife last night. …