The dark gray sky lightened a bit as USS Stout rounded the end of Pier 5 at Naval Station Norfolk, the rust streaks and faded paint on its side a testimony to its record-setting 215 days at sea.
As the tug Susan Moran nudged the destroyer gently to the pier, the sun briefly broke out.
It wasn’t the usual homecoming. First, there was those many months away from the Stout’s Norfolk home port. Then, as the big bright yellow sign on the pier reminded long-distant sailors: “Welcome to the pandemic games. May the odds be in your favor.”
But the crew knew that. Cmdr. Rich Eytel, the Stout’s skipper, said they’d spent the last several days “getting muscle memory down with masks.”
After all, more than seven months at sea makes for the equivalent of a lot of quarantining.
And the Stout’s sailors were busy with a lot of other, non-pandemic concerns.
“There was a lot to keep us busy, so time kind of flew by,” Eytel said.
The Stout spent much of its time at sea making sure merchant ships and tankers could get safely through the Straits of Hormuz, that strategic Persian Gulf bottleneck. It watched over the transit of more than 550 vessels.
Because of the pandemic, and the Navy’s concern that port calls upped the risk of illness for its sailors, the Stout completed the first modern Mid-Deployment Voyage Repair period at sea, including the kind of repairs that usually are done in port.
The crew went far longer than usual without getting new parts for those repairs. They stretched food and fuel limits, Eytel said.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them, they did great. They really showed they’re resilient, self sufficient,” he added.
Because of the pandemic, families couldn’t meet their sailors on the pier, instead waiting for them to make their way to a nearby parking lot, not far from where Philomena Adduce, 4, had found the clump of tiny white flowers she was going to give to her dad, Timothy.
Her dad promised to take her out to have her nails done, the little girl shyly admitted. Her older brother, Damien, said he was looking forward to playing video games with his dad. As for mom, Mary Kate Adduce?
“I’m just really excited. I’m ready to take him home.”
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