Just after daybreak, sailors below the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush buzzed with anticipation, seeming to rush from place to place as they tried to sneak a glimpse at the barely visible Virginia Beach coast.
“There it is,” said one sailor to another, as they peered out a roped-off doorway.
The warship made its way back to Naval Station Norfolk early Sunday morning following a near nine-month deployment. A Virginian-Pilot photographer and reporter flew out to the carrier before it pulled into port.
As they approached the coast around 7 a.m., Rear Admiral Dennis Velez announced that sailors could use their cell phones in the hangar bay — an exception to a rule that typically requires sailors turn their cell phones off when pulling into ports.
“They’re excited, they’re proud of what they accomplished. The right to talk to their families and friends was kind of a little gift, a homecoming gift for all of them and really for their families,” Velez said.
Hundreds of sailors took him up on it. It had been about a month since they last had cell phone reception.
During the roughly 250-day cruise, the strike group traveled more than 63,000 nautical miles and completed over 12,100 sorties and 25,000 flight hours. The strike group trained and operated with more than 26 allies and partners participated in NATO-led vigilance activity Neptune Strike and Juniper Oak 23-2, the largest bilateral U.S.-Israeli exercise in history.
The long-awaited homecoming of the 5,000 sea-going sailors was delayed by about two weeks as the Bush was postured March 31 to bolster the capabilities of CENTCOM ( U.S. Central Command) in the Middle East after a series of attacks in Syria.
“They (the sailors) understood why we needed to be in the position for a little more time. Because if our presence there prevents escalation or saves even one American life, it is worth it and they understood that,” Velez said.
As the carrier passed past the Cape Henry Lighthouse and turned into the Chesapeake Bay, the battle flag was hoisted — the blue of the flag nearly matching that of the sky. About an hour later, at 9:20, some 200 sailors in their dress whites manned the rails as leadership played Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” over the intercom and tugboats guided the warship with musical horns and 360-degree spins.
“Looking sharp, sailors,” said Capt. Dave Pollard, commanding officer of the Bush, his voice booming over the intercom. “Welcome home.”
The cheers of the thousands of onlookers could be heard as the Bush did a starboard twist, pulling next to its sister ship, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, and prepared to shift the colors to its fantail.
As the ship pulled closer to the pier, the homemade signs and American flags frantically waved by loved ones slowly became distinguishable.
A group of 26 male sailors gathered just outside the “Bomb Farm” below deck where a brow was to be lowered. They were less than an hour from not just being reunited with their families — they were all fathers who would be meeting a baby for the first time.
“I am very nervous. I am coming back to a whole new person,” said 20-year-old aviation ordnanceman Spencer Fetterhoff just minutes before disembarking.
He’s only seen his 7-month-old daughter, Leilani, in pictures and videos.
Around noon, leadership climbed down the metal grated steps into the arms of loved ones. Shortly after, sailors, all in dress whites, disembarked in droves.
Beatrice Anima, an aviation ordnanceman, eagerly awaited the arrival of her mother, Monica, and her uncle, James. The pair were driving to Norfolk on Sunday from Alexandria to welcome the 22-year-old home from her first deployment.
“It was a lot of ups and down, but I really enjoyed the time. I learned a lot about myself, others and the world,” Anima said. “But I am ready to see my mom, for sure. That is the hardest part. This is the longest I have been away.”
Anima is bringing home memories of re-enlisting on a helicopter, exotic Grecian cuisine, and dreams of where she hopes the Navy will take her next.
“It was hard, missing holidays, but it was worth it. And holidays missed just means there is more to celebrate now,” Anima said with a laugh.
Eager to find her family, Anima — lugging a hefty bag on her back — trekked down the pier to the mass of families cheering at the security gate, eventually disappearing into a sea of sailors.
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