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After historically long deployment, Nimitz is almost home

After heading over the horizon last April, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to upend life across America, the aircraft carrier Nimitz and its strike group are heading home, completing the Navy’s longest deployment since the Vietnam War.

The carrier arrived in San Diego Friday to drop off Carrier Air Wing 17, its crew and any other sailors who call San Diego home and will then steam up to its home port at Bremerton, Washington, in the coming days.

The strike group’s sailors will have been gone for roughly 340 days — 11 months — by the time everyone is back home from the historic deployment, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told reporters earlier this week.

“Their focus on mission really got them through a long deployment, the longest we’ve seen in decades,” Gilday said.

Joining Nimitz on this cruise was the guided-missile cruiser Princeton and the guided-missile destroyer Sterett.

Another strike group warship, John Paul Jones, remains “half a world away” on deployment, Rear Adm. James Kirk, the strike group’s commander, told reporters Friday.

While COVID protocols and the needs of the U.S. military led to an historic deployment for the strike group, Kirk said the entire strike group “had zero COVID cases from the time we sequestered … until the time we returned.”

Food lines were a bit longer to allow for distancing, but crews were able to ease some COVID restrictions a bit once at sea with their so-called “COVID-free bubble” secure.

Lightning flashes over the aircraft carrier Nimitz July 4 as it transits the South China Sea. The Nimitz and Ronald Reagan carrier strike groups were conducting dual carrier operations in the South China Sea. (MC1 John Philip Wagner Jr./Navy)
Lightning flashes over the aircraft carrier Nimitz July 4 as it transits the South China Sea. The Nimitz and Ronald Reagan carrier strike groups were conducting dual carrier operations in the South China Sea. (MC1 John Philip Wagner Jr./Navy)

The group conducted port visits in Guam, Oman and Bahrain for repairs, resupply and to give the crews some downtime, so none of the strike group had to endure record-breaking continuous days at sea, stints that other crews went through in 2020.

The carrier and its strike group were set to leave the Middle East early in the year before acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller reversed course and kept the carrier on station in the waters of U.S. Central Command, a move he said was “due to recent threats issued by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other U.S. government officials.”

A sailor speaks with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during the secretary’s visit to the aircraft carrier Nimitz Thursday. (DoD).
A sailor speaks with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during the secretary’s visit to the aircraft carrier Nimitz Thursday. (DoD).

Kirk said Friday that the reversal was difficult for everyone and that he and Nimitz commanding officer Capt. Max Clark strived to be transparent with the crew about such developments.

“Acknowledging the emotional part of this and then refocusing on the mission is how we deal with it,” Kirk said. “I think the sailors and Marines responded to that.”

CNO Gilday visited the carrier this week, as did Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

“I don’t want deployments this long to be the norm,” Austin said to the crew, according to a Pentagon release on his visit. “We need to take a hard look at that, but you handled it very, very well. … You took care of each other in the midst of a pandemic.”

Once back in Bremerton, Nimitz will enter the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for maintenance.

“These sailors and Marines gave it their all for nearly a year,” Kirk said. “I couldn’t be more proud.”

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