Then it was on to the northern Persian Gulf, to provide security for Afghanistan's April presidential election. But things really ramped up one day in June, when members of the air wing returned to the carrier and realized something was different.
Mission planning began immediately and two days later, they were flying missions over Iraq against the brutal Islamic State militancy.
"We knew what we were planning was real, so that was really cool," she said to the audience of several dozen fellow carrier fliers. "It meant a lot of responsibility for us."
"As the former strike group commander from George H.W. Bush, prior to this deployment that you're going to hear about today, we had no idea what we would do," said Rear Adm. John Aquilino as he introduced the panel.
As the only American assets on station, the pilots and flight officers of Carrier Air Wing 8 were the first to fly into Iraq's air space, 45 days before other American or international assets joined in.
For the nugget aviators — on their first cruise in their first fleet squadrons — things went from business as usual to flying by the seat of their pants very quickly.
They started with reconnaissance missions and planned airstrikes, but the rules of engagement were strict.
"We literally needed presidential approval before anything was going to happen," the NFO said. "So about six weeks after this, we come back from a port call, and a couple of different things had happened that raised the situation concern and kinetic events were approved."
'Longest 20 seconds of my life'
The lieutenant was waiting for his lead to finish up and scanning a Peshmerga convoy when a joint tactical air controller came over the radio.
"Keep in mind that since we had no troops on the ground, this JTAC was actually at Fort Bragg, North Carolina," he said. "I get the call to get my sensors on a potential vehicle that has been shooting mortars at this Peshmerga convoy."
An Air Force Predator had eyes on an ISIS vehicle stacked with mortars.
"I could tell by the tone of the JTAC's voice — normally you can kind of tell whether this was going to be an employment or not," he said. "It was very quick. We got authorization almost immediately that we were going to go ahead and employ on this vehicle."
The team decided to simultaneously fire.
"I'd honestly never fired a Maverick or anything off the jet. When that thing came off there, it was frickin' loud," he recalled. "It was a big, big frickin' flame coming off of my right wing there. So [it] kind of startled me a little bit. I'm watching this thing come off my jet and I'm like, oh s---, I still have to fly my jet."
He leveled off from a dive, he said, "and the next probably 20 seconds were the longest 20 seconds of my life, as I'm wondering where the heck this Maverick is at."
It was a mission accomplished.
Another Super Hornet pilot on station that day, from VFA-213, recalled the aftermath.
"When you looked at the video afterward, they had 20 or 30 mortars lined up, so essentially there were secondaries going off for the next hour or so," he said.
In Iraq, they were directing their own show and learning the rules as they went.
The Bush Carrier Strike Group made its way back to Norfolk in October, as the carrier Carl Vinson and Carrier Air Wing 17 picked up where they left off.
One VFA-94 F/A-18C Hornet pilot got his shot to prove himself about halfway through that cruise, in a pre-planned strike over Iraq.
"Somehow, someway they convinced the powers that be to let us take our small-motor [F/A-18] Charlie, single-seat with 4 [missiles] up north," he said. "It was a heck of a cat[apult] shot. I don't know if anyone's gotten to fly with a 2,000-pounder on a Charlie before — but it flew great, once we got a little air speed."
They were knocking out roads and bridges to set up for defensive operations the following day.
"It was a lot of fun dropping those things," he said. "It feels like you're dropping a Volkswagen off your wing, which you pretty much are."
Despite the thrill of seeing combat so early in their careers, there was still the reality of how dangerous it was.
Ending a sortie will be a lot more straight-forward when Maritime Augmented Guidance with Integrated Controls for Carrier Approach and Recovery Precision Enabling Technologies — better known as MAGIC CARPET — makes it to the fleet.
While the Hornets dropped the bombs, EA-18G Growlers provided support not only for CAG 17 but for coalition forces.
Aquilino assured the audience and the JOs that Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, the Navy's director of air warfare, has made that a priority.
For now, the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike group has taken Vinson's spot in the gulf, continuing to launch air strikes. As of Sept. 11, they'd flown more than 1,500 missions.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.