By all accounts, it's been a long, strange deployment.
The 140 crew members of the attack submarine Jefferson City waved goodbyes to their families on an overcast day in early spring as they pulled off the pier at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego. It was April 9, and they planned to return home in October from a "scheduled six-month Western Pacific" cruise, according to a Submarine Squadron 11 press release.
But nothing about this "scheduled" deployment has followed the plan, according to officials, crew members and their families.
The Jefferson City was supposed to "focus on maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts, which help establish conditions for regional stability," according to the squadron's release.
But instead, Jefferson City's crew has spent the past five months stranded in Guam, focused on their own sub's readiness. Deadlines to bring it home or steer it to Pearl Harbor for repairs have come and gone. The limbo continues. And all sides are getting fed up.
"We fully understand the needs of the Navy and that, at times, deployments are extended because of operational commitments," said a Jefferson City spouse, who asked for anonymity to publicly discuss what has been a sensitive issue for the crew. "But it's something totally different to have no idea at all when they might be coming home."
The sub has been docked in Guam since June 21 while it waits for repairs. The crew thought they'd be back in San Diego by the end of August.
As of Nov. 17, the crew has been gone from home more than seven months — 223 days, to be exact — and it has been 149 days since the sub has been at sea.
Neither the crew nor the families in San Diego know exactly when it might end. The latest turn: The sub is to shift its official home port on Nov. 25 from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, which is the nearest location to get the intricate repairs needed to fix the sub.
Navy officials say the sub will most likely leave Guam soon and arrive in Pearl Harbor by the end of November.
"Jefferson City has been in port in Guam since June 21 for various maintenance and repairs," said Cmdr. Brook DeWalt, spokesman for Submarine Force Pacific. "Jefferson City has a very small water leak from a valve internal to the propulsion plant."
DeWalt said the reactor has a water coolant leak that isn't a safety concern and is not putting anyone or the environment at risk because it's contained inside the plant. He also emphasized that officials don't consider the boat to be "stranded" in Guam for the past five months, since it's had the capacity to get underway.
"We do not publicly discuss the specifics of submarine movements in advance, with a few exceptions to accommodate homecoming events with the media, etc.," DeWalt said. "In this instance, we anticipate Jefferson City to arrive in Pearl Harbor in November."
The Navy wasn't even planning to pay the Jefferson City's crew the new Hardship Duty Pay-Tempo, worth up to $495 per month for deployments that stretch past 71/2 months.
But that changed after Navy Times inquired with personnel officials in mid-November.
"The bottom line is that they are still on deployment, even though they are currently at a U.S. base in a U.S. possession," a personnel official told Navy Times, saying that top officials decided to overrule the call initially made by the sub's chain of command.
The word from the boat has been largely unchanged through the ordeal.
"It seemed for a long time we were told we'd know something more 'next week,'" the spouse said. "Then when next week came, we'd again be told the answer would then again come next week. It's been like this all along."
The sub had a leak in the reactor cooling system when it pulled into Guam in June, DeWalt said. What took so long was chasing that leak down. Initially it was thought to be in a cooing coil, but it was later isolated in a valve, after much evaluation.
"Since the leak was small, and I mean extremely small, extensive investigation and instruments was required to identify the actual location of the leak," DeWalt said in a Nov. 14 phone interview. "And once identified, additional time was needed to review repair options."
The reactor isn't the only maintenance issue with which the boat has had to contend. In August, a contract was let to a San Diego company to replace one of the boat's high pressure air compressors and motors. DeWalt confirmed these repairs and added that they also received work on the boat's shaft seals.
"It was clear the boat needed maintenance, and for a while they were telling us the ship would come back to San Diego for repairs, but that never happened," the spouse said. "There was talk she could come on her own power with special permission, and there was also talk she could be towed, but none of those issues have ever been resolved. At least if they have, they've not been communicated to us or the crew."
DeWalt says this issue has been resolved and that the ship "will conduct the transit from Guam to Pearl Harbor under her own power," he said.
Family members were under the impression the deployment had been canceled around July 24. In fact, the spouse's sailor said that due to the changing mission, he thought he would be home by the time school started up. But those days came and went without news about when the sub would leave Guam.
DeWalt said that wasn't the case.
"Jefferson City's deployment was not canceled," he said. "The ship remains on deployment until return to home port — in this particular case, their new home port of Pearl Harbor."
'Out of the blue'
All along, the crew and families have been planning for the ship's return to San Diego, which was slated to be Oct. 28. In mid-October, word came down from the Navy about the ship's future, but it wasn't what they wanted to hear.
"We had a meeting in October, and they told us the ship's home port would be changed to Pearl Harbor, and that she would come home there instead of San Diego," she recalled. "It really hit us out of the blue. There had been discussion before they left on deployment in early April about a home port change to Pearl, but we were told the earliest that would happen would be June 2015."
The Navy had tentatively planned to shift the sub's home port to Pearl Harbor on April 30, 2015, nearly six months after the ship's expected return date of Oct. 28.
Instead, officials decided to make the shift's official date Nov. 25, just weeks away. The Navy made the home port change announcement Nov. 7.
"The Navy has officially announced the change of home port for USS Jefferson City from San Diego to Pearl Harbor," Submarine Squadron 11 announced on its official Facebook page. "Change of home port orders are expected to be available on Thursday, November 13. These orders will allow eligible families to start planning their household good moves and privately owned vehicle shipment."
Instead of the sub returning to the families, the families will be returning to the sub.
The only official explanation for this bizarre turn of events — before Navy Times asked officials for answers — was a note buried in an official slideshow for the families, on a page titled, "How did we get here?"
"From July - September, 2014: Organizational Change Request was delayed due to ongoing discussions with high-level Navy entities as a result of the boat's condition," the slide said.
"Jefferson City was already scheduled to shift home port to Pearl Harbor in 2015 to conduct an extended overhaul which required dry docking," DeWalt said. "While this repair does not require dry docking, the most efficient repair decision is to incorporate the repair into the scheduled overhaul."
Home port change-up
The sudden changes have made it hard for some spouses and crew members alike. The home port shift affects many spouses' jobs and children's education.
"No one has really had any time to prepare for this move," she said. "And especially hard hit will be sailors who aren't married and are collecting single BAH and supporting significant others in San Diego," she said. "Effective Nov. 24, their BAH stops until the Jefferson City arrives in Pearl Harbor — that's going to put a hardship on some of these people."
DeWalt acknowledges the home port change was "accelerated," but he said the Navy decided to move it up because of the additional maintenance the ship would require before its scheduled overhaul.
"An early home port shift allows families to join their sailors in Pearl Harbor while maintenance is conducted on the ship," DeWalt said.
The home port change rule is based in federal law and not Navy policy, so it's unlikely there will be waivers.
When Navy Times began reaching out to officials for comment — the process that brought to light officials' initial determination that the crew didn't qualify for the Hardship Duty Pay-Tempo — the inquiries prompted the sub's ombudsman to send out a gag order to the families.
"There will be articles coming out in newspapers regarding the boat, running next week. Specifically Navy Times," wrote the sub's ombudsman, Kristina Sponseller, according to a copy of the email obtained by Navy Times. "There is a chance that some of you might be contacted for comments."
The email didn't forbid family members from talking to the media — as is their right under federal law and Navy public affairs policy — but it insinuated that family members could face problems.
"We have been asked to refer whoever it is to [Submarine Squadron 11]," she wrote. "We want to avoid any incorrect information, OPSEC issues or putting any of you into an awkward situation with the Navy."
During the week of Nov. 9, Jefferson City was undergoing an operational readiness exercise to see if it will be cleared to get underway.
DeWalt says that it's already been determined the ship will transit to Pearl Harbor under its own power, noting that it's common for ships to undergo training in port, even while on deployment, and that training on board the ship didn't stop, even though the ship was dockside in Guam.
As of November, the dry dock spot was taken up by another Los Angeles-class sub. The Asheville is in the dry dock and has had its overhaul extended, so it's not clear when the Jefferson City will be able to get repaired.