CLEARWATER — After six months of waiting, families eager to be reunited could barely stay in their seats.
Their ears were tuned into the U.S. Coast Guard commander congratulating his unit for a safe and successful deployment. But their eyes were on their loved ones, standing just steps away, awaiting dismissal after a six-month mission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Waving American flags and holding homemade signs, the crowd of about 250 family members and friends erupted in cheers at the Coast Guard Air Station when Port Security Unit 307 was dismissed.
Tears streamed down Heather Burch's face as she jumped into her dad's arms.
"I love him and I've missed him so much," said Burch, 17, of Largo. "I'm so excited, and my birthday is next week."
Burch's dad, Michael, 42, had to miss her high school graduation in June because of the deployment. But he said he'd make it up to her on her birthday.
"I'll probably take her out to a nice dinner and catch up on everything that's happened the last six months," he said.
Nearby, Mike Miller, 35, of Tampa stopped to pose for pictures with his 19-week-old daughter, Michaela.
"It feels awesome," said Miller, about having his first child in his arms for the very first time.
Chief Petty Officer Chris Lipke held tight to his 2-year-old daughter, Maggie, who in turn was hugging a stuffed green iguana her dad brought her from Cuba. Lipke, 42, has been deployed five times with Unit 307 since 2001.
"I've been gone almost half her life," said Lipke, of St. Petersburg. "Words can't describe how good it feels to hold her."
About 80 members of the 140-member unit based in St. Petersburg spent the last six months providing protection for the naval station and Joint Task Force Guantanamo, which operates the detention center.
The group patrolled surrounding waters and also provided security for hearings and tribunals for detainees — a first for a Coast Guard unit, said Cmdr. Bob Grassino.
Composed mostly of reservists, the unit has many members who are police officers or firefighters in civilian life, Grassino said. He credited the unit for dedication and professionalism.
"They're outstanding. I can't say enough good things about them," he said.
Grassino said his unit was thrilled to be home before the holidays.
"That was our goal, to get them home in time for Christmas," he said.
Sandra Myhre's four children were giddy with excitement that mom was finally home.
"You never really realize how much responsibility she has until she goes away," said daughter Rachel, 19.
The family will have plenty to celebrate as the holidays approach.
Oldest daughter Hannah, 21, graduated from college on Saturday. On Sunday, she got engaged.
"She's home just in time," said Hannah, showing off her engagement ring.
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4162.