Sailors aboard the destroyer Benfold manned the rails Jan. 11 as the ship approached Naval Base San Diego, wrapping up a seven-month Ballistic Missile Defense independent deployment. The deployment was originally scheduled for eight months. (Gidget Fuentes / Staff)
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SAN DIEGO — Clutching bouquets of roses and white towels commemorating their deployment, sailors aboard the destroyer Benfold nervously waited to reunite with their loved ones Friday afternoon, just in time for the weekend.
The ship's crew and families had another reason to celebrate: Their homecoming came a month earlier than expected when the ship left Naval Base San Diego on June 15 for an eight-month independent deployment to the U.S. Central Command region.
While operating in the Persian Gulf, Benfold learned in late November that the Navy decided to trim a month off the deployment. The destroyer spent most of its deployment in the gulf, providing ballistic missile defense to the U.S. and its allies in the region as part of the Navy's global BMD mission.
Word of the shortened, seven-month deployment initially arrived to mixed reviews.
"A lot of them were disappointed ... because we had a good thing going," said Cmdr. Richard LeBron, Benfold's skipper, speaking on the bridge as the ship, off Point Loma, prepared to make course for the channel into San Diego Bay.
For five-and-a-half months, Benfold operated in the Gulf as the crew focused on the high-demand BMD mission while also supporting numerous maritime security operations and theater security cooperation exercises in the region. "That's a point of pride with the crew," LeBron said.
Still, he added, "we are all excited to come home."
A few miles away, his wife and six children waited with other Benfold families in the crowd of several hundred gathered on Pier 2.
Lt. j.g. William Hughes, the ship's navigator, could barely contain his joy at the early return home from deployment, his first.
"I've been married less than a year," said Hughes.
He and his bride tied the knot just a month before he deployed, and an eight-month deployment would have meant they'd have to spend their anniversary and probably Valentine's Day apart.
Hughes had another surprise for his wife when they'd reunite on the pier. "I lost 20 pounds," he said, crediting the weight loss to a new physical-training routine that included running and a variety of exercises.
Logistics Specialist 2nd Class (SW) Elvira Lawson said she made the most of her first deployment, too, spending her down time reading, watching movies and getting off ship during liberty ports, like a trip where she got to ride camels in the desert. She's especially proud of her advancement to second class.
As she "manned the rails" as Benfold inched closer to the pier, Lawson, with several rose bouquets in her arms, looked forward to taking a month of leave to see her family in Los Angeles and San Diego-area friends with a Christian fellowship group. Several greeted her with a large "Welcome Home" banner, proclaiming, "We Missed You!"
Lawson, 25, recalled how the expected eight-month deployment seemed like a lifetime away from home. "Now that I'm coming home, it's not as long," she said, chuckling. "It's a great humbling experience. ... You realize what you don't have."