Submarine Helena returns to Norfolk
Weeks ago, when the Navy was ordered to prepare for a possible missile strike on Syria, Rebecca Luce didn't bother writing to her sailor son to ask if his submarine was anywhere near the action.
She knew from years of experience that his answer would only frustrate her.
"They can't tell you, so I don't ask," Luce said Tuesday while waiting for the fast-attack submarine Helena to return to Norfolk Naval Station.
The Navy mom grew accustomed to the secrecy of submarine deployments years ago when her husband, now a master chief, served as an engineer in the Navy's stealthy fleet.
The Navy closely guards the details of submarine movements, for obvious reasons. The Helena was gone for roughly six months, but officials won't say exactly when it left.
The crew spent time in the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Pacific Ocean. The submarine - loaded with torpedoes and cruise missiles - steamed a distance roughly equal to twice circumnavigating the globe.
The captain, Cmdr. Jeffrey Lamphear, described the Helena's deployment in the vaguest of terms.
"Our operations spanned three gulfs, two seas and two oceans while conducting exercises with coalition partners and other U.S. forces," Lamphear said.
Asked to elaborate, he responded: "I cannot."
Secrecy is part of the mission, adding an extra burden for families back home.
"It can be difficult, but that's the submarine life," said Luce, who came to the pier with her daughter, mother and a close family friend to welcome home Petty Officer 3rd Class Tim Luce Jr.
"Communication at least has gotten a lot better over the years with technology," she added.
Back when Master Chief Tim Luce Sr. was deploying on submarines, loved ones could communicate only a few times each deployment through 40-word notes known as family-grams. The concise messages would be read over the boat's intercom to the entire crew.
"I knew everyone would hear it, so I used to write poetry," Luce said. "You can only say, 'I love you,' so many times."
She welcomed her son's decision to enlist and follow in his father's footsteps. But saying goodbye at the start of his first deployment this spring was harder than she imagined.
"He's still my baby," Luce said, motioning to a poster-size photo of her 20-year-old son. "It's hard not being able to see to him."
Just then, the Helena appeared in the distance with a dozen sailors standing topside. Family members screamed.
Luce waved her flag over her head and shouted, then embraced her daughter. Tears formed in her eyes.
Her son was able to write occasional emails during the deployment, Luce said, and he called home each time they pulled into port. But he was never able to say much.
"He's a man of few words," the mother said.
Soon, he was standing in front of her, looking a lot like his father in his dress blues.
"Timmy!" Luce shouted. "There you are!"
The sailor smiled and held out a bouquet of flowers.
After 50,000 miles and months away from home, he greeted her with a single word.
"Hello," he said, then wrapped his mother in his arms.