NORFOLK, Va. — The wails of small babies almost drowned out the patriotic rock song as the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman pulled up along a pier Friday morning at Norfolk Naval Station.
The heated tent reserved for mothers who had given birth during the ship’s nine-month deployment was packed. The air smelled of cocoa butter, baby powder and hand sanitizer. A frazzled mom cradled a fussy newborn, bouncing and swaying in rhythm with John Mellencamp.
"Ain't that America, somethin' to see, baby."
Moms brought more than 170 babies to the tent — in strollers, in car seats and in slings — to meet their dads for the first time. It was an unusually high number, even for a massive aircraft carrier with more than 5,000 sailors aboard.
Fewer than 100 babies were born during the aircraft carrier Enterprise’s final deployment in 2012. A year ago, when the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis returned to the West Coast after eight months at sea, only 28 new babies waited at the pier.
A Navy spokeswoman didn’t have an explanation for the surge. But an informal survey of the worn-out moms who packed into the tent Friday revealed a common narrative: Federal budget cuts had messed with family planning.
“She’s a sequestration baby,” one new grandma said, shouting over the music. She laughed, but she wasn’t joking. Her daughter, a new mom, blushed.
Two days before the Truman was scheduled to deploy last February, the Pentagon dropped its requirement to keep two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf — a cost-saving measure that left Truman families in limbo.
Unsure when or if the ship would deploy, dozens of couples decided to try for a baby. By the time they learned the new deployment date, many were already expecting.
Shaun Schrier took a pregnancy test eight days before the Truman shipped out last July. She was on the phone with her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class Brian Schrier, as two pink lines appeared.
“So did you take it?” the sailor asked.
“Yup,” his wife responded.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Dillon Trotter was training on the ship off the coast of Virginia a few weeks before deployment when he checked his email and read a two-word note from his wife: “I’m pregnant.”
Trotter became lightheaded and his heart raced, he said. The thought of his wife giving birth while he was away terrified him. Sweating, he backed away from the computer and sprinted the length of the ship, through its narrow passageways below deck, until he reached the fantail. He took deep breaths in the open air.
“He has anxiety problems,” his wife, Megan, said Friday while holding her sleeping 2-month-old daughter, Langston.
The change in schedule affected Amanda Roecker in a different way: She became pregnant months before the initial deployment date and had expected her husband home to help with the newborn. She pushed 7-month-old Alyson to the tent in a stroller.
“When it’s national defense versus your personal plans, national defense usually wins,” Roecker said.
While young mothers figured out how to install car seats and learned to function on a few hours of sleep, sailors aboard the Truman were busy steaming more than 67,000 nautical miles and launching fighter jets on 2,900 combat missions over Afghanistan.
Another telling statistic: The ship’s medical crew performed vasectomies on more than 20 sailors while at sea.
Finally, the ship was roped to the pier.
“I just want to take a shower that lasts longer than 45 seconds,” said one mom.
“I’m not changing diapers for a month,” said another.
More moms with babies crowded into the tent — the infants’ cries growing even louder — as sailors filed off the Truman.
Outside, the crowd cheered. Inside, a mom wearing a baby on her chest wiped a toddler’s nose and scolded an older child who had wandered too far away.
Outside, loved ones waved huge flags and banners. Inside, a baby wearing a tiny sailor outfit chewed on the wooden stick of a miniature American flag, oblivious to the excitement.
The first few dads in dress whites stepped inside.
“There he is,” Shaun Schrier shouted, and rushed toward her husband while holding tiny 5-week-old Piper tight against her chest. Brian Schrier wrapped them in his arms.
The sailor had been worried when he received word that his daughter had been born with a heart problem and immediately taken across town to a neonatal intensive care unit. Tears formed in Schrier’s eyes as he held her for the first time.
Similar scenes unfolded around them, where the screams of babies had been replaced with the screams of grown women.
Megan Trotter shrieked. Dillon Trotter hugged his wife, kissed her, then took his baby daughter into his arms.
“Finally,” he said, his shoulders relaxing. “I’m not letting her go.”
He wasn’t feeling anxious anymore.