After six long months, the USS Minnesota is home

Groton — On Wednesday, they moved the paper submarine one last spot on the countdown chart — "Hooray, this is the day daddy comes home," it says.

After six months of only seeing one another via video chat when the boat made port calls to Brest, France; Haakonsvern, Norway; Faslane, Scotland, and Rota, Spain, and communicating through sporadic emails, Josh Smith, 31 a sonar technician on the fast-attack submarine USS Minnesota, dad to Hadley, 2, and Colton, 6, and husband to Kelsey, 32, finally is home.

Smith is one of 130-plus crewmembers on the USS Minnesota, which was returning from its first six-month deployment. It was the longest Josh's family had gone without him.

A day after a nor'easter dumped more than a foot of snow on southeastern Connecticut, Kelsey, Hadley and Colton, all dressed in new winter coats, waited in the cold and wind, which proved too gusty to hold up their signs for very long — Colton's read "You have travelled the world. Now you're back in ours!" and Hadley's was painted with blue, green, purple and pink dots and the words "Welcome Home Daddy."

As the kids waited, they waved shiny gold and purple pompoms. Hadley nibbled on a big sugar cookie, and Colton gobbled up three bags of chips. At home, a tower of Dr. Pepper cans, several bottles of his favorite beers — Killian's, Blue Moon and Sam Adams — and his favorite candy — Snickers, Reese's and 100 Grand bars — was waiting for him.

"I see it, Hads," Kelsey told her daughter, as the boat slowly made its way to its berth at the Naval Submarine Base. "Get your pompom." They tried to see which of the men, dressed nearly identical except for the color of their life jackets, was Josh, but they couldn't make him out.

First the boat had to get to the pier, then it had to be tied up, then the trash had to come off. Then there were the traditional firsts — first kiss, first hug. One sailor met his baby for the first time. Then it was time to flood the pier.

Kelsey, with Hadley in her arms, held Colton's hand as they snaked through the crowds of people embracing, snapping pictures and videos, and looking for their loved ones. At one point Kelsey stood on her toes to see if she could see Josh. Finally, they spotted him.

Colton was the first to reach him, giving him a big hug and jumping into his arms. Earlier, he'd said his plan was to "hug him to death." As Josh picked him up, he joked "You're heavier than I remember." Hadley reached out from Kelsey's arms and wrapped her arms around his neck as he kissed her on the cheek.

"Did you guys see us pull in? It was awesome, huh?" Josh asked, before informing the kids, "I've got lots of presents for you guys."

"Isn't daddy a good enough present?" Kelsey asked.

"Uh-huh," Colton said, grinning.

For a look at what the past six months have been like for Kelsey, Hadley and Colton, and the Carrs, another family of a sailor aboard the Minnesota, check out the series "Left behind: Navy families navigate life at home." It launches online Thursday and in print on Sunday and Monday.

j.bergman@theday.com

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