Carrier Eisenhower leaves Norfolk for Persian Gulf
NORFOLK - Aisha Owmba doesn't know when she'll see her husband again.
She and her 6-year-old son waved goodbye Thursday as the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower pulled away from a pier at Norfolk Naval Station for what has been billed as a four- to five-month deployment.
But with big defense cuts looming -- a consequence of Congress's failure to pass a new budget and reductions demanded by sequestration -- Owmba fears those plans could change.
"I'm scared they're going to be stuck out there," she said, wiping away tears.
It was the second farewell in less than a year for Eisenhower families, who welcomed their sailors home just two months ago following a six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf.
The fast turnaround and the uncertainty emanating from Washington weighed heavy on the minds of loved ones who bundled up against the cold to see the ship off.
"I'm telling myself that they won't be back before the end of summer," said Kelly Schroeder, whose husband is an aviation mechanic aboard the Ike. "That way, if they come back on time, it will be like a bonus."
The Eisenhower was brought home early in December to have its flight deck resurfaced so it could be sent back -- part of a reshuffling of forces sparked by mechanical problems on a West Coast-based carrier. The Ike will relieve the John C. Stennis as the only U.S. carrier in the Middle East.
The departure comes two weeks after the budget impasse forced leaders to cancel the deployment of another Norfolk-based carrier, the Harry S. Truman, two days before the ship was to set sail. The last-minute change came after the Pentagon dropped its requirement of having two carriers deployed in the Middle East -- a move that will save the Navy about $300 million a year.
The decision to send the Eisenhower after a short break instead of the Truman, which last deployed in 2010, angered a number of Ike spouses. Many vented on Internet message boards and in phone calls to reporters following the announcement.
Some spouses were still grumbling as the ship pulled away Thursday.
"I was mad," said Maria Jenkins, who brought her 11-month-old daughter to see off her husband. "It's not fair to send them again when the Truman hasn't been out."
Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, the commander of the Eisenhower strike group, said the decision came down to economics and efficiency.
"It's not a question of fairness; it's a question of taking the American taxpayer dollars and distributing them the most cost-wise way," Manazir said.
The admiral said his staff launched an awareness campaign after observing the blowback from the Truman announcement.
The Navy has warned that, given the budget squeeze, it might not have enough ready aircraft carriers to meet its operational requirements by sometime in 2014. Sending the Eisenhower now and keeping the Truman in port buys a few extra months, defense officials said.
The Eisenhower is due to enter the shipyard for scheduled maintenance before the end of the year. The ship wouldn't have been able to deploy later in the rotation had Truman gone in its place.
"If you were to deploy somebody else at this time, it would not be a good investment," Manazir said. "The American taxpayer dollars are already invested in the Ike."
Current plans call for Truman to stand ready in case of emergency and then deploy to the Persian Gulf later this year or in early 2014.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Krysten Bowles clutched a cellphone and waved as a tug pushed the Eisenhower away from the pier. Bowles served four years aboard the ship before transferring to shore duty late last year and said she knows "half of the crew."
"This is a tough one for them," Bowles said. "They just got back; there's a lot of uncertainty.... But this is what we all signed up for."