CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. (AP) -- About 50 Marines rode ashore at Onslow Beach at dawn Sunday, the first of thousands expected back at Camp Lejeune this week after five months in Iraq.
Members of A Company, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, rolled up on the beach aboard 16 amphibious assault vehicles launched from the amphibious transport USS Ponce, just off shore.
The combination sea-land vehicles drove through the dunes to a parking area for inspection before carrying the Marines to barracks on the base for reunions with their loved ones.
A few families were on the beach to watch the landing. Evelyn DeNice brought her daughter and two sons, who shouted and hopped with excitement when they saw Gunnery Sgt. Bert DeNice, his head protruding from the top of one of the assault craft.
"This is probably the best feeling ever. We can finally breathe again," Evelyn DeNice said. "We're just happy he had a safe return home."
Some 7,000 members of Task Force Tarawa, also known as the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which helped rescue Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch, were due back at Lejeune and nearby air bases and ports this week. At least 1,500 were expected Sunday at Onslow Beach, the port at Morehead City, and New River and Cherry Point air stations.
The brigade has spent five months in Iraq, where 20 members were killed in combat, three died in accidents and 58 were wounded in action.
"Sometimes, you don't know how much you miss them until they're gone," Greg Mayo, 38, said Saturday. He was preparing for the return of his wife, Gunnery Sgt. Yolanda Mayo, at the end of the week when the last of six ships is due off the North Carolina coast.
At Lejeune, welcome home signs written on bedsheets lined the chain link fence across from the main gate, and in town, signs on businesses celebrate their return.
This week's return from the war is the largest to date for Jacksonville, which borders the base. About 15,000 ground troops from Camp Lejeune were sent to Iraq and Kuwait.
In addition to helping rescue Lynch, members of Task Force Tarawa captured 1,000 prisoners of war, worked to secure the cities of Nasiriyah, Al Amarah, Ad Diwaniyah and Al Kut, and controlled an area of 50,000 square kilometers.
Their 20 losses were significant, though not as great as the 35 soldiers killed in the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which had the most casualties of any military unit.
The task force had left in January with the Marines and 81 aircraft.
Jennifer Thrash, the wife of deployed Sgt. John Thrash, a 26-year-old combat engineer from Meridian, Miss., hung a banner on the front porch of their duplex proclaiming: "Welcome home, John. Thank you for defending freedom. Love you so much."
"Until Sept. 11 happened, my generation never knew what the cost of defending freedom meant," she said.