Delayed holiday homecoming for Iwo Jima group

By Mike Hixenbaugh The Virginian-Pilot

Christmas is on hold at the Lara household, pending further notice.

That line wasn’t included in the email Christina Lara fired off to hundreds of Navy spouses last weekend, but it was among the thoughts running through her mind as she clicked send.

The amphibious landing dock New York and two others in its ready group – the Iwo Jima and Gunston Hall – wouldn’t be returning to Hampton Roads days after Thanksgiving, as originally planned. Instead they were ordered back to the eastern Mediterranean Sea as fighting escalated between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza.

As the New York’s ombudsman, Lara had the duty of notifying loved ones. “I made sure the email was positive and to let family members know we are here to support them in any way.”

Next, she had to tell her three children that Daddy – Petty Officer 1st Class Pablo Lara – wouldn’t be home to cut down the family Christmas tree. She delivered the news with the calm resolve of a seasoned Navy spouse.

“I told them that he wouldn’t be home as soon as we thought,” Lara said, “but that he had a very important mission for our nation.”

Her 13-year-old son reacted first: “But Mom, you can’t carry the Christmas tree,” he said, referring to the family’s tradition of buying a live tree the night of Thanksgiving. This year they planned to cut it down when Dad came home a week later.

“We’ll put it on hold for a bit longer and see what happens,” Christina Lara said. “If it comes down to it, I’m sure I can lift a tree onto the roof of the car.”

That can-do attitude was a common response among thousands of Navy spouses who got the same news the Lara family did. Some 2,000 sailors and 2,400 Marines are serving on the ships.

Three-year-old John Azubike has been sleeping with a photo of his daddy under his pillow since Lt. Peter Azubike left aboard the Iwo Jima in March. The smiling portrait will stay at his bedside for at least a few more weeks, mom Toks Azubkie said.

“They don’t really understand the concept of time,” Toks Azubkie said of her three young children. “So I just say, ‘He’s still coming. He’s coming.’”

On Navy Facebook pages, family members typed out prayers asking that God watch over the ships. Others wondered whether their sailors would be home in time for Christmas.

One Iwo Jima wife wrote to say she was disappointed her husband probably would no longer make it back in time for the birth of their son. “Such is life,” she wrote. “I pray to God they won’t keep (them) long.”

Even after Israel and the Hamas militant group in Gaza agreed to a cease-fire Wednesday, a Navy spokesman said no return date has been decided on. Christina Lara said she’s confident the time will pass quickly. She’s been down this road before.

Her husband was sailing toward a homecoming at the end of a deployment aboard the guided missile cruiser Philippine Sea on September 11, 2001. Then came the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

She watched CNN in horror as the second World Trade Center tower fell. Later came the scrolling news alert across the bottom of the screen: The aircraft carrier Enterprise and its battle group – which included the Philippine Sea and her husband – had turned around and was steaming toward the North Arabian Sea.

Christina Lara was a wreck. She clutched her 2-year-old son and cried. Eventually, she heard from her husband. Everything was OK. After a month, the ship came home.

She’s been reminding herself of that lesson since getting the call about this latest extension.

“I was very saddened by the news,” she said. “But we know they’re on a mission, and part of our mission is knowing they have to do what they have to do for our nation.”

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