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Thursday, April 3

USS Lincoln crew ready for trip home from Persian Gulf

By Francis Donnelly, Max Ortiz | The Detroit News

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, Persian Gulf - One sailor will see his two-month-old daughter for the first time. Another will visit his dying grandfather. A third will become a U.S. citizen.

The crew of this aircraft carrier on the Persian Gulf has a lot of catching up to do once it returns to the United States.

Its deployment, which began with training and ended in war, will end as soon as it is relieved by another ship. After 8 1/2 months at sea, the USS Abraham Lincoln is finally coming home.

``I'm just ready for some America right now,'' said Eric Gonzales, 22, a machinist mate fireman from Bay City, Mich.

The crew's next port of call is life: seeing friends, driving cars, celebrating missed birthdays and holidays.

Did we mention driving cars?

It ranked near the top of the to-do list for many sailors. Maybe it's their age, which averages 19.

Anthony O'Brien, 22, a fighter jet mechanic from Woodhaven, Mich., has a hot date with a blue 1999 Mustang GT.

``I have never loved anything as much as I do my car,'' he wrote by e-mail.

Some crew members wouldn't indulge in such reverie. They were dubious about the recent announcement by their admiral that they would be going home soon.

They heard a similar message in December and were heading back to the United States when they were forced to turn around because of the growing conflict in Iraq.

Gonzales said he won't believe the ship is going home until he sees the American flag waving from the ship's berth at Lemoore Naval Air Station in Lemoore, Calif.

``It's just best not to get your hopes up until it actually happens,'' he wrote by e-mail.

But Gonzales violated his own protocol, saying he would be so happy to return home that he would probably cry.

What the sailors missed most about terra firma were simple things, activities that most people take for granted.

Among them: sleeping in a normal bed, cooking on an outdoor grill, watching the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.

Ryan Veltkamp, 24, of Grandville, Mich., was asked what he would do first after getting back:

``Drive around in a car and go to eat Subway,'' he replied.

But not all of Veltkamp's actions will be so carefree.

He and his brother, Brett, 22, who's also on the ship, will visit their cancer-stricken grandfather.

Both Veltkamps, who work on the ship's nuclear reactors, are close to their granddad.

``It now looks like he may be on his last legs with the latest cancer report,'' Brett said.

While the Veltkamps confront possible death, one of their fellow ``nukies'' wants to celebrate a birth - his daughter's.

Jeff Hartsock has posted pictures of his daughter all over the reactor department's instrument room. What he hasn't seen yet, however, is her. She was born March 7.

Hartsock couldn't be reached at the ship, but Brett Veltkamp said his friend is torn up that he wasn't home for the birth.

``I can tell that hurt him to miss it,'' Veltkamp said.

Naveed Muhammad, 20, of Dearborn, Mich., wants to return so he can become an American citizen.

He had passed a test to be a naturalized citizen, but his plans to take the oath were delayed by the extended cruise.

Still, the electricians mate fireman said he was sorry to be leaving the Middle East before the war was finished.

``I want to be here for a little while longer,'' he said. ``The war just started and I want to be a part of it.''

(Francis X. Donnelly reported from Detroit and wrote the story. Max Ortiz reported from the USS Abraham Lincoln.)