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Petty Officer 1st Class Brittany Britos and other sailors man the rails as the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam returns to Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, after a nine-month deployment, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020.
Petty Officer 1st Class Brittany Britos and other sailors man the rails as the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam returns to Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, after a nine-month deployment, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (James Hong/U.S. Navy)

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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — USS Antietam sailors came home to a new world on Tuesday after being underway for the majority of the coronavirus pandemic thus far.

The guided-missile cruiser left its homeport here on Feb. 27, exactly a month before the first sailor on the base, and first U.S. service member in Japan, contracted the coronavirus.

“Since we were already underway at the start [of the pandemic], we set a lot of standards in preventing COVID-19 at sea,” said Petty Office 2nd Class Nico Watt, a hospital corpsman assigned to the Antietam, according to a Navy statement Tuesday. “We were the first to run an underway quarantine and MEDEVAC as a training scenario.”

COVID-19 is the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Most of the Antietam crew remained aboard throughout the entire 260-day deployment, even during “several” brief pier-restricted stops in ports, according to the statement. The ship maintained its “bubble ship” status “to prevent the introduction of COVID-19 to the crew and maintain the ship’s combat readiness, according to the statement.

As the Navy dealt with a major outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt in March, the service stopped allowing liberty during port visits to prevent bringing the coronavirus aboard its vessels.

Though most Antietam sailors spent all 260 days on the ship, the crew did not break Navy days-at-sea records like others did this year because of its port visits. The current record-holder, the USS Stout, clocked 215 days without a port visit during its nine-month deployment this year.

The Antietam, as one ship of the Reagan Carrier Strike Group, escorted the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan from May to October as it patrolled the Western Pacific. The cruiser was with the Reagan on missions in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Indian Ocean, as well as dual-carrier operations with the USS Nimitz in July.

The cruiser that month also trained with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Australian Defense Force in the Philippine Sea, and in September took part in Valiant Shield, a U.S. multiservice exercise in the waters off Hawaii, according to the statement.

“For 260 days of COVID-free bubble operations, Antietam’s sailors performed with honor, courage and commitment,” ship commander Capt. Russell Caldwell said in the statement. “I cannot be more proud, and it was my privilege to lead and serve alongside each and every one of them.”

Though most sailors hadn’t seen their families in-person since February, some waved from the ship’s brow to their loved ones when the cruiser briefly pulled into Yokosuka in March.

In a letter to Antietam families posted to the ship’s Facebook page last month, Caldwell said sailors may face extra challenges adjusting to life on land, especially after this deployment.

“Reintegration for the crew will take two forms,” he wrote. “The first being reintegration with the family and the second being reintegration into a COVID world.”

While the base community has had eight months to adjust to coronavirus precautions and numerous associated restrictions, Antietam crews have not yet lived in a Japan where travel is restricted, and bars are banned.

“We have been protected for over 200 days and are not used to the restrictions and rules, especially in Yokosuka,” Caldwell said in the letter. “I will ensure your sailor is armed with the information, but I ask you to reinforce the rules once back at home.” Twitter: @CaitlinDoornbos

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