NAVAL STATION NORFOLK, Va. — Navy commanders gave due credit Wednesday to the families of sailors aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, who managed households and kids while the aircraft carrier conducted an odd split deployment.
To which a few military families replied: Happy to help, but if you don't do this again, that would be fine.
The Ike left Hampton Roads in June 2012 for an expected nine-month deployment, longer than has been the case in recent years. But the carrier scheduled to relieve it — the West Coast-based USS Nimitz – became sidelined for repairs. So the Navy brought back the Eisenhower in December, resurfaced its flight deck, allowed the crew to enjoy the holidays, then sent them back to sea in February.
Six months on, two months off, four and half months on.
Now the crew, commanded by Capt. Marcus Hitchcock, is back home for a more conventional period of rest and relaxation, and just in time for Independence Day. Jenn Simons Pittsburgh was one of several Navy wives who was glad this odyssey was over.
"I would rather they stayed out the whole time," she said, waiting on the docks for her husband, Airman Travis Simons "Only because it was harder for my kids to say goodbye twice. It was hard to come back and leave again. It was very strange."
A short distance away, Erica Woolridge waited for her husband, Petty Officer 1st Class Vernon Woolridge, while keeping a close eye on the couple's two children, Zion, 3, and Zaria, 5.
She said the split deployment "was definitely something new for us. We've been military for over eight years and we had never experienced anything like this."
When the first leg of the deployment ended and her husband was home for the holidays, he began bonding for the first time with his 3-year-old son. That made it all the harder to leave the second time.
Dora Prager was in Texas when she learned late last year that the Eisenhower was coming home early. Her husband, Petty Officer 2nd Class Joshua Prager, was on the ship.
"I missed it because of this crazy schedule," she said. "So this is the first homecoming that I'm actually here. It's really important for us."
To be fair, some families found things to like about the split schedule. Emily Farmer of Jacksonville, Fla., was several months pregnant when she learned her husband, Petty Officer 3rd Class Keith Farmer, would be back early for the holidays.
"I was pregnant, so I wanted him home," she said. "It helped out a lot."
Emily was eight months pregnant when her husband headed back to sea in February. So he had a surprise waiting for him at the docks: 3-month-old Samuel was ready to say hello to daddy.
Children do have a way of putting things in perspective.
Airman Adrionne Frederick stepped off the Eisenhower and saw his baby girl, Ahriona, for the first time. Suddenly, strange schedules didn't seem to matter.
"Sometimes it could bring down morale, but when you get here and see this, I fee like it's all worth it," he said.
Hitchcock said he was proud of his sailors and their families "for their unflagging commitment and dedication to our Navy and the nation. They have earned a hero's welcome home."
No one is saying that split deployments are the way of the future, but if military families think their sailor is spending more time at sea today than years ago, they're probably right.
Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in April, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert noted the following:
"Over the last decade, our fleet shrank by about 10 percent while our deployed presence remained the same. As a result, each ship and aviation squadron spends on average about 15 percent more days away from home per year now than it did 10 years ago."
Testifying before the same panel, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus noted the Norfolk-based USS Bataan and accompanying ships spent more than 10 months at sea in 2011-12, the longest deployment for a Navy ship in 40 years. The crew of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis spent only five months at home between two recent seven-month deployments.
As those comments suggest, the burden is falling heavier on warships that form the backbone of the Norfolk-based fleet: carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups, the latter headed by amphibious assault ships like Bataan.
Craig Quigley, executive director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance, says the heavy workload may continue even with tighter budgets. Aircraft carriers and other ships allow the U.S. to project its strength without putting troops on foreign soil.
"You can be in the vicinity, close to a hot spot, and be right there for as long as it takes," he said.
And with places like Syria, North Korea and Iran constantly in the news, Quigley said, "I don't see that lessening any time soon."