GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Christian Flores and thousands of others on the USS Nimitz sailed through the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea last year.
But, they never left the aircraft carrier because the COVID-19 pandemic was wreaking havoc across the globe.
“We were deployed for 341 days and the only thing going through my mind was what’s going on at home,” said Christian Flores, a nuclear mechanic and third class petty officer. “Everyone was anxious more than anything. We had to maintain professionalism for our roles, but we’d have leaks of emotion.”
That saga began in spring 2020. Flores was visiting his family in Grand Junction, just as coronavirus was erupting. When he left for duty and eventually set sail from Bremerton, Washington, all his parents could do was wait for intermittent contact.
Marni and Fernando Flores were worried for each of those 341 days, save for the occasional email or, if they were lucky, a phone call from their son.
As the virus worsened, the Floreses heard about carrier after carrier suffering from COVID-19 outbreaks.
“I mean, he was on a boat with about 5,000 other people in the middle of a pandemic, so of course you’re going to be worried,” his father said. “And any time we heard from him, he had to be careful about what he told us. But just hearing from him was great.”
The feeling was mutual.
“Any message that we got through to our family or that we got from them was the biggest thing to us,” Flores said. “It meant everything.”
In between each message, Flores’ parents were understandably scared and anxious. To calm her nerves, his mother would research the Nimitz, scouring military news sites for the latest updates on her son.
“That became a daily routine for me,” she said. “Even if it was two weeks old, at least there was something and I at least knew he was safe.”
On three separate occasions, the Nimitz was set to return from its deployment. But each time, something would come up and their trek would continue.
Flores believes in the principle of Navy. He sees his job as important to the United States.
But 341 days at sea in a once-in-a-century pandemic can wear on even the most patriotic of sailor.
After about three false hopes, the family got word that Flores was coming back. Of course they had learned to not get their hopes up, so it didn’t hit them until they saw his face at Grand Junction Regional Airport on Tuesday evening.
“The first thing to go through my mind was that I was so happy to see him,” his mother said.
Now that Flores is back, the family is mostly together. Some of his six siblings are out of town, but the Flores family is hoping to still have some sense of normalcy. They’re following COVID-19 guidelines and not going out much.
They don’t mind, though. They’re just glad to have their son back.
“There’s nothing that can prepare you for that as a parent,” Fernando Flores said. “It was one of those things where you need hope and faith to keep you going.”
According to the Department of Defense, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III flew out to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz off the coast of California to thank the crew for a record-setting deployment.
The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group returned after operations in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and U.S. Central Command areas of responsibility.
It was the first carrier strike group to deploy under COVID-19 protocols. By the time the carrier strike group reached home, the sailors and Marines aboard were gone for the better part of a year.
The Nimitz, the cruiser USS Princeton, and the destroyers USS Sterett and USS Ralph Johnson made up the group.
“You’ve just demonstrated incredible professionalism, resilience and focus,” Austin told the crew over the ship-wide public address system. “It’s been very impressive.”
The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group had the longest deployment since the Vietnam War.
It was lengthened by COVID-19 protocols that called for a quarantine before departing and the elimination of port calls during the deployment. The Navy aims for deployments to be roughly six months. The Nimitz group were away from family and friends almost twice that.
Overall, the carrier strike group steamed more than 87,300 nautical miles during its deployment. The carrier launched 10,185 sorties totaling 23,410 flight hours logged.