Evelina Flores, 4, shows the sign she made for her mother, Brenda Flores, at Naval Base San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

Family members awaiting their loved ones the day before Thanksgiving expressed gratitude at their timely return home aboard the USS Boxer.

“It’s pretty cool,” Marine Sgt. Tyler Schott said on the pier as he waited Wednesday morning for the ceremonial “first kiss” with his wife, Ariel Schott, a petty officer first class on the amphibious assault ship. “It’s something to be thankful for.”

“I’ve missed her home cooked meals,” he added, thinking about cooking a holiday meal with his wife.

But mixed with gratefulness were thoughts of sacrifice.

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Raenna Vance, a fire controlman chief aboard the ship, has missed birthdays, an anniversary, the loss of a first tooth, band events and school promotions, said her husband, Jeff, as he and his family waited for her return to their arms.

“And Taco Tuesday!” piped in 8-year-old Tyler, recalling what his mother has been absent for.

The Vance clan was among hundreds of families and friends who gathered at Naval Base San Diego to pick them up for special holiday celebrations. The Boxer returned along with the rest of the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group after dropping off Marines at Camp Pendleton on Tuesday.

“She will never get that time back,” said her husband. “A lot of stuff is being missed.”

When he sees what she missed, “I know what’s on the other side, what I am missing,” he said, referring to his own past deployments. Taking turns, “that’s the part that sucks.”

The Vances have three sons — ages 8, 15 and 17.

“Some people take for granted being with their kids,” he said. “And it has been harder as the kids have been growing up.”

But that chapter is ending because his wife’s deployment to the Middle East was her last, he said. They both hope to retire.

Amber Griham, who married her husband, Avery, on Jan. 8, got her first taste of deployment during his seven-month leave.

Avery Griham on Wednesday got the first glimpse of his son, Aries, who was born five months ago. He looked at the baby and said: “He’s little me.”

“I’m happy to be back, especially this one,” said the first-time dad.

Amber had her own perspective.

“I felt very lonely,” she said. “It was very difficult raising him on [my] own. The only form of communication was email.”

Asked what she missed most during her husband’s absence, she said “everything. … It’s been a long road.”

And in the days to come, “I just want to spend every second with him.”

The Boxer, a Wasp-class assault ship, was launched in August 1993. The 843-foot warship has been involved in conflicts including Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom II and Operation Inherent Resolve.

On July 18, during its deployment to the Persian Gulf, the ship downed an Iranian drone over the Strait of Hormuz.

President Trump said the drone was destroyed after “ignoring multiple standdown calls.”

Boxer commanding officer Capt. Dale Heinken said, “I am extremely proud of this team. It’s good to be home. I know that they are extremely excited about being home. They exceeded all tasks that were assigned to them. And they did it with a smile and had a good time doing it as well.”

The holidays are always a tough time for Navy families, he said.

“For many of the crew, this was their first deployment, so being home for Thanksgiving, and seeing their friends and family and also being home for Christmas … is really special,” Heinken said.

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