Thousands Welcome Ford Sailors Home to Norfolk Following Extended Maiden Deployment

by Braxton Taylor

Little Eleanor, just 5 days old and wearing a hooded fuzzy bear onesie, slept soundly in her mother’s arms as they waited on the pier by the aircraft carrier. She was about to meet her father, aviation machinist’s mate Raymond Dillon, for the first time.

“Today is actually her due date — so he is late but she was also early,” mom Jana Dillon said with a laugh.

Thousands of families braved frigid temperatures Wednesday to welcome the USS Gerald R. Ford back from its maiden deployment to hostile waters. The Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group left Naval Station Norfolk in May but the Department of Defense extended its deployment at sea by 76 days, or from six to 8½ months.

The thrice-extended deployment meant crew members spent Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s Eve — holidays they expected to share at home with loved ones — at sea.

“You just have to recognize that the world is out of your control,” Jana Dillon said. “You have to kind of be along for the ride.”

The crew took the extensions in stride, said Rear Adm. Erik Eslich, commander of the Ford strike group, as he stood pierside after disembarking from the carrier.

“We made the best of the situation,” Eslich said. “We held our heads high and took care of each other. I couldn’t be prouder of what we did as mariners and aviators but also what we did as human beings.”

The Ford and its strike group were ordered to sail to the Eastern Mediterranean following an Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, long designated a terrorist group by the U.S. The carrier remained in the Eastern Mediterranean while its accompanying warships went to the Red Sea, where they repeatedly intercepted incoming ballistic missiles and attack drones fired from Houthi-controlled Yemen, the Associated Press reported.

The Ford, which was delivered to the Navy years late and billions over budget, performed “fabulously,” said Capt. Rick Burgess, commanding officer of the carrier. The Ford is the first in its class of carriers, jam-packed with 23 never-before-seen technologies. The deployment marks the first time its next-generation capabilities were presented to the world.

“This ship is everything that the Navy and the American public wanted and more,” Burgess said. “I could not be more proud of our sailors who learned all these new systems and technologies and performed magnificently throughout the entire deployment.”

While deployed in the Mediterranean, the strike group participated in 12 multinational exercises. The carrier visited ports in Croatia, Greece, Italy, Norway and Turkey. Other ships in the strike group also visited Belgium, Cyprus, Montenegro, Spain and Sweden.

The Ford is the flagship of Carrier Strike Group 12, which includes cruiser USS Normandy, destroyers USS Thomas Hudner and USS McFaul and Carrier Air Wing 8.

McFaul and Thomas Hudner returned to their homeports in Norfolk and Mayport, respectively, in early January. Squadrons from Carrier Air Wing 8 embarked aboard the Ford began returning to their homeports in Hampton Roads, Jacksonville, Florida; and Whidbey Island, Washington; over the weekend.

The Ford is now entering a pierside maintenance cycle. Crew members will have the opportunity to take two weeks off, the captain said. They will be able to take regular leave leading through the summer months before the ship begins a training cycle to prepare for a future deployment.

“The mission of the ship is now to rest and reconnect,” Burgess said.

Sailors lined up with their sea bags once the brow, or gangway, was put in place at 11 a.m. Wednesday. Standing on the flight deck at the front of the ship, sailors waved to loved ones waiting on shore.

Navy wives Baleigh Weirum, 22, and Maia Moore, 24, frantically jumped up and down.

“I see you! I see you!” Moore shouted to her sailor, Eric, a nuclear power mechanic.

Up the pier at the infant tent, new mom Alexandria Balgue, 19, quickly changed the diapers of 3-month-old twins Keishawn and Khalil before rushing to greet their sailor. Aviation ordnanceman and new father Kristopher Balgue dropped his bags and shyly peered inside the draped stroller at his babies. Alexandria introduced him to his sons.

He was speaking with her as she was giving birth, but the phone hung up mid-call as she had to have an emergency cesarean section.

“It was scary. It was hard to keep him updated, and he couldn’t get to me,” Alexandria said of the deployment. “But at the end of the day, it is what they are out there to do. It is the job, and I signed up for it too when I married him.”

William Clincy, a chief warrant officer, made his way through a sea of sailors and wrapped his wife and two kids, ages 10 and 14, in an emotional embrace. The family of four leaned into each other as they exchanged quivering I love you’s and I missed you’s.

Wife and mother Iris Clincy only loosened her arms around William Clincy long enough to straighten his dress hat and wipe the tears from his cheeks.

“Our family went through so much while he was gone but we all had to keep it together — and we did,” Iris Clincy said with a shaking voice, leaning her head on her husband’s chest.

This was the eighth time William Clincy has deployed.

“It was more difficult as time went on and with each extension,” he said. “But I knew my family was strong.”

©2024 The Virginian-Pilot. Visit pilotonline.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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