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USS Enterprise coming home after launching two weeks of air strikes over Afghanistan

ABOARD THE USS ENTERPRISE (AP) _ The first U.S. aircraft carrier to report for combat duty in the war on terrorism had a very different agenda before Sept. 11 _ a peaceful trip home from the Middle East.

``We were ready to go home, but (terrorist Osama) bin Laden had a different plan for us,'' said Raymond Torres, a machinist mate aboard the USS Enterprise.

The carrier became a base for launching the earliest air strikes against Afghanistan, with its planes dropping 862,000 pounds of munitions during two weeks in October.

On Saturday, the Enterprise was finally expected for its delayed homecoming at Norfolk, Va. The 5,000 sailors on board the carrier, which had its mission extended by nearly a month, were anxious to see their home port and proud of what they had accomplished.

``Our bombs-on-target rate was better than any recent conflict,'' said Lt. Cmdr. Scott Harrill, an F/A-18 pilot from Westford, Mass. ``It was a complete team effort.''

The Enterprise crew has an average age of 19 1/2, but Enterprise Capt. James A. ``Sandy'' Winnefeld Jr. said his sailors performed like veterans.

``We actually had a lot of seasoning. We were toward the end of our deployment, we had already performed operations in Iraq, so we were really at the top of our game,'' Winnefeld said. ``If you've lost faith in the youth of America, this is the place to come and regain it.''

The campaign felt different from combat missions of the past, said Lt. Cmdr. Scott Cohen, a supply officer from New York.

``Everything else _ Desert Shield, Bosnia _ it was always someone else who had been attacked,'' Cohen said. ``This was an attack on the U.S. It drove home a lot more the importance of what we're doing.''

Torres, also from New York, said the conflict ``was more of a personal thing. To me, it was like, 'We got 'em back.'''

Torres and the other ordnance workers took pleasure in scrawling messages on the bombs to be dropped, phrases like ``bin Laden or Bust'' and ``Hijack This.''

Even Winnefeld got into the act, writing FDNY, NYPD and Pentagon on some of the first bombs to be dropped.

Airman Jeremie Light, who armed bombs before fighter jets carried them to their targets, couldn't help but think of the consequences of his work.

``How many people is this going to kill? It's on your mind all the time,'' said Light, of Dixon Springs, Ill. ``But then you see the planes come back, and you see that the bombs were launched, and everybody's cheering.

``It's doing what's right for our country.''

Dozens of aviators from the Enterprise flew home Friday, a day ahead of their carrier.

One of them, Navy Lt. Steve Wynfield, had dropped bombs on Afghanistan on Oct. 7, the first day of the attack _ and his first wedding anniversary. He finally got to share an anniversary kiss with his wife, Holly, after he and 67 other fliers landed at Oceana Naval Air Station.

``It's incredible, it's amazing to be back,'' Wynfield, a radar intercept officer from Patuxent River, Md., said after hugging his wife.

Winnefeld said his sailors were happy to be heading home, but have some worries about returning to a nation that they hear described by media, friends and family as forever changed.

``In the final analysis, though, they're going to know they were in an important place at an important time and they did their job honorably,'' he said.
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