For 11-year-old Abilene Valdez, bedtime kisses were what she had missed most the past four months. For her 6-year-old brother, Alessio, it was the abundant laughter brought by his father’s tricks.

Dr. Marion Henry shows the emotion of reuniting with her daughter, Katie, 4. Photo by Chris Stone

For these and other children waiting for their loved ones to debark the Navy hospital ship Mercy, the wait was over Sunday morning.

More than 600 sailors, Marines and civilian mariners returned to their families and friends after taking part in Pacific Partnership 15 — which provided medicine, dentistry, veterinary care, public health services, engineering and disaster response training and education in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Wives had small children in tow and babies in strollers as they waited for their mates. Brothers, sisters and parents craned their heads to get a glimpse of their military family members.

“I’m so proud of him,” said Rose Valdez, speaking of her husband, Lt. Col. Sherwin. “It’s been such a great experience.”

During his journey, Valdez was able to reconnect with old friends, she said.
“It just goes to show that being in the Navy makes the world a smaller place,” she said. “It gives me a greater appreciation of what we have and what we can offer.”

Justin Avery waits with balloons for his sister to depart the USNS Mercy. Photo by Chris Stone

But her husband missed “a lot of firsts” while away.

“Our youngest started school and we had to move into a house by ourselves,” Valdez said.

But she added, “If other military families can endure, what makes us different? I told my children that they are in a club with others, and that they are getting initiated.”

Another waiting wife, Mercedes Morales, had her own initiation into military life.

“I just want to jump in his arms,” Morales said as she held a big blue sign.
She and her husband were married New Year’s Eve, and she has missed not being with him for part of their first year.

“It has been an experience for both of us,” Morales said. “The hardest part has been my best friend not being here.”

While her husband on the ship has been “daydreaming about his freedom after coming home,” she has been counting the days.

Her sign reads, “It took 133 days to see your face, but I’ll take a lifetime to stop loving you.”

Imani Dixon, 3, has a welcome home sign for her dad. Photo by Chris Stone

Mercy supply crew member Shammi Singh had a homecoming of his own on the mission, when he reconnected with his family in Fiji after eight years.

“I never thought I would be going back to my home country with the U.S. Navy,” Singh said.

He volunteered for the mission when he heard that Fiji was among the stops.

“When I heard they were going to Fiji, I said, ‘How many chances will I have to go and do something for my home country?’”

“It was really nice seeing my family, just seeing the general people. They were very appreciative and filled with gratitude of what the U.S. is doing over there.

He said he saw many changes. “They have nice hospitals, nice industries now,” he said. “Only the people haven’t changed.“

The Pacific Partnership is the largest annual multilateral humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness mission in the Indo-Asia Pacific.
 
Mercy medical and dental personnel provided care to more than 20,000 patients, but the main job of Pacific Partnership 2015 was to conduct expert exchanges about medical matters to improve collective disaster response. 
 
The voyage had an unlucky start in Hawaii, though.
 
In June, the U.S. Navy acknowledged that the Mercy hit a floating dock connected to the USS Arizona World War II memorial in Pearl Harbor. Neither the sunken battleship nor the Mercy was damaged, and there were no injuries.
 
Pacific Partnership stemmed from the devastation wrought by the 2004 tsunami that swept through parts of Southeast Asia. After providing humanitarian assistance for the disaster, the Mercy returned to the region two years later for the inaugural Pacific Partnership mission.

The mission staff has since expanded to include partner nation militaries and non-governmental organizations working to increase the disaster relief capabilities in the region. Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 21, which accompanied the hospital ship, returned Saturday to NAS North Island.

— City News Service contributed to this report.

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