NORFOLK — In terms of sheer numbers, the largest round of applause for a returning carrier strike group goes to the flagship — those nuclear-powered, floating cities that project Navy air power around the globe.
But a strike group also consists of the "small boys," the Navy term for surface ships like cruisers and destroyers that guard an aircraft carrier's flanks, and whose crews perform important missions in their own right.
On Friday, before the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman arrived at Naval Station Norfolk, three smaller ships sailed through the early morning chill to meet a welcoming throng of families and friends, relieved to see a nine-month combat deployment come to a successful end.
The first ship to arrive was the guided-missile cruiser USS San Jacinto, and that made the following people very happy:
Lisa Brooks, who realized that driving from Missouri across six states was actually worth it, even though West Virginia is nothing but hills.
Alyssa Dutschke, who invested $125 in raffle tickets and won the coveted "first kiss," a Navy homecoming tradition.
Seaman Austin Harbaugh, who had so many reasons to celebrate he didn't know what to do. Get this: Harbaugh not only came home to his wife, but he is a new father — of twins. After the ship landed, the couple headed to their new house.
Besides the San Jacinto, the guided-missile destroyers USS Mason and USS Bulkeley also preceded the Truman home. Their deployment, while busy, did not grab world headlines. Still, recent events in Ukraine have shown these types of ships are far more than carrier escorts.
In March, the guided-missile destroyer USS Truxtun, sailed into the Black Sea for routine naval exercises, but the move attracted worldwide attention because of the political crisis in Crimea. Truxtun is based in Norfolk and part of the George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group.
More recently, the USS Donald Cook went on patrol in the Black Sea and was buzzed by a Russian fighter in a series of provocative fly-bys. The Donald Cook had been based in Norfolk. It moved to Spain in January.
Dutschke, who shivered in the cold while waiting for her first kiss, said she didn't watch the news for much of the deployment. But toward the end, when Russia appeared in the headlines, she decided to educate herself.
That way, she could hold her own with Petty Officer 2nd Class Todd Dutschke. The two have been married for five years, and this was his second deployment.
She's well aware that ships like the San Jacinto don't always get the publicity.
"I have to tell people, when they ask what ship he's on, I tell them the Truman Strike Group," she said. "You're not going to know his ship."
Farther down on the dock, Lisa Brooks waited for her son, 20-year-old Derek Brooks, who was about to complete his first deployment. Derek's fiancee waited in a nearby tent, where many family members stayed because of the cold.
"They were actually supposed to get married before they deployed, but they changed the deploy date and they had to change their wedding," she said..
Nearby, Charmaine Roberts waited for her 20-year-old son, Daniel, also completing his first deployment.
"It was scary," she said. "I was very worried about him because it was his first time away from home. But he's passionate about the Navy — ever since he toured the U.S. Naval Academy. That left an impression on him."
As the sailors stepped off the ship, Seaman Harbaugh found his wife, Shayna, and his 3-week-old twins — Mackson and Hadlynn.
"I don't have any words for it," Austin said. "I've been looking forward to this for three weeks going on tomorrow. This is the greatest feeling I've ever felt in my entire life."
He said the deployment took a toll, but he managed to be on the phone during the twins' birth.
"I feel like I missed out, but I'm going to make up for it," he said.
Shayna added, "They let me put him on speaker phone — on my chest — so he heard their first cries, which was something."