What started as a scheduled six-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea became a journey that 2,300 Marines and sailors will never forget.
As dawn broke over Onslow Bay on Tuesday, Marines from the 26th MEU returned to U.S. soil.
"It's been a really long, rough eight months," said Cpl. Kevin Standal. "I'm real glad to be home."
The 26th MEU commander, Col. Andy Frick, led the unit into Northern Iraq, where the Marines faced the enemy.
"Whether they're shooting 100 bullets or one bullet, if it is meant for you, you still get nervous," Frick said.
Those are images Frick could forget for a moment Tuesday as he looked into his daughter's eyes upon returning to his home base.
For most young Marines, the deployment offered their first taste of combat.
"I was not really all that scared," said 26th MEU Sgt. Clint Winston. "You know, we train for it. It's like we've been to school for years, and we finally got put to the test."
Unlike the rest of the Marines from Camp Lejeune, the 26th MEU did not come straight back to Onslow Beach after pulling out of Iraq. The troops had a few more months left on their deployment, and that took them into another country at war.
Part of the unit brought humanitarian aid into Liberia during the height of that country's civil war.
"We were able to help give them food and water," said Isias Velazquez. "We had doctors give them medical aid."
The Marines did not have to fight in Liberia. But they stood ready and sent a clear message that they would get involved in the combat if necessary.
Tuesday, they finally stormed their own beach again.
After their long journey to war, the Marines of the 26th MEU said the biggest victory is that they all made it home safely.
The Marines also had a Malaria scare when they left Liberia. More than a dozen Marines showed severe symptoms, but medics say they all made a full recovery.
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