Naval officer returns home after seven months at sea because of coronavirus

Sailors assigned to USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) man the rails as the ship returns to Naval Station Norfolk on Aug. 9, 2020.


By RYAN BOLDREY | MLive.com | Published: August 12, 2020

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(Tribune News Service) — It was a record nobody wanted to be a part of, Master-at-Arms Kevin Kannally joked after returning to port following an unprecedented 206-day deployment aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Kannally, a Kalamazoo native, was among approximately 4,800 sailors and airmen who had called the aircraft carrier home since it departed from Norfolk, Virginia on Jan. 17.

The ship returned to port Aug. 9, due to the coronavirus pandemic. He said the carrier arrived to little fanfare, despite being out to sea 46 days longer than any ship in U.S. Naval history.

The ship was supposed to be back to port after just a month out to sea, before heading out for a four-month deployment in February, said Kannally, an anti-terrorism officer who headed up security operations training on the ship.

“The world always gets a vote is what we say and while we were doing the initial 30 days, the decision was made to just leave right away for the Middle East. Within a month-and-a-half of being there, that’s when the whole COVID thing actually hit,’' he said.

While other carriers, such as the USS Theodore Roosevelt experienced coronavirus outbreaks on board, Kannally said those aboard the USS Eisenhower were fortunate as there were no reported cases on deck.

The USS Roosevelt, which held the previous record for longest deployment — 160 days in 2002 — had 1,273 confirmed cases of coronavirus on board, according to the U.S. Navy, most of which were known by the end of March.

“Once it started to affect other aircraft carriers, they told us, ‘Hey you guys might have to hold it down a bit longer,' " Kannally said. “We knew by the end of March we’d be getting extended until August at the earliest.”

That meant no planned port stops in Oman or Bahrain, and at least one or two other locales, he said. It also meant instead of traveling north toward Scandinavia, the ship would patrol Middle Eastern waters for its entire time at sea instead, Kannally said.

On the positive side, he said, as it pertained to health, the USS Eisenhower was about the safest place you could be during a pandemic.

“For us, since we were already out, as soon as everything started, they immediately stopped all travel to and from the ship,” said Kannally, who turned 25 during deployment. “Nobody was allowed to come and go unless it was an absolute emergency.

“We didn’t bring anyone onto the ship for a good six months. Only a couple people went off, for medical reasons or for deaths in the family, but once they were flown off, they just stayed home.”

One of the biggest challenges, in addition to reviewing threat assessments and ensuring the safety of those on board, Kannally said, was “just staying sane.”

Helping that cause, he said, was a civilian employee on board known as the “fun boss.” His job, Kannally said, was to make sure there were opportunities for people to detach from work and relax.

“There was dodge ball, poker and video game tournaments, bingo, basketball, karaoke, you name it, we had it,” Kannally said. “There was stuff going on pretty much every day of the week. It was definitely needed with that much time away.”

Those on board underwent training for social distancing so they were prepared if a coronavirus outbreak occurred, he said. Given everyone stayed healthy and no one new came on the ship until late July, it wasn’t until the last couple weeks where they actually had to undergo full precautionary measures.

“We practiced certain things here and there, where everyone would wear a mask and you’d transit the ship in a certain direction, go up and forward on the starboard side, and down and out on the port side to transit anywhere, so we had a plan in place if COVID ever came on the ship,” he said.

Those tactics eventually were put to use as a precautionary measure only after the USS Eisenhower welcomed aboard Egyptian pilots who had to come on to allow the carrier to pass through the Suez Canal in July.

“We didn’t have a choice,” Kannally said. “We needed them to get us through. So, for the next two weeks we had people spread apart in the mess while eating and everyone wearing masks around the clock. We wiped everything down five times a day and practiced social distancing until we were certain we were all COVID-free.”

Masking up and going through that experience shortly before returning to port, he said, helped him and others prepare for the return to a world that has undergone quite a few changes since they shipped out in January.

Coronavirus fears aside, now that he’s experienced land again, Kannally is looking forward to the next chapter.

Kannally said after 6½ years his time in the Navy is coming to an end.

The Mattawan High School graduate has less than two months remaining on active duty. After a planned visit home to Kalamazoo later this month, he said he will soon begin his studies at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina.

As he looks ahead to his next adventure, he said his most recent one —spanning more than 200 days and 60,000 nautical miles — is one he’ll never forget.

“Just being isolated from society, with nothing but water and nothing but each other for months on end, it wasn’t always fun necessarily, but it’ll be a story, I’ll be able to tell forever,” he said.

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