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Pics: Tears and smiles as USS The Sullivans comes home in time for Thanksgiving

The USS The Sullivans' return to Naval Station Mayport, Nov. 24, 2021. (U.S. Navy/Released)

Travis Hensley gave a final salute, then became the first to bound down the gangway of the USS The Sullivans on its homecoming, his seabag with him as he hit the pier at Naval Station Mayport.

Within seconds, the bag was replaced in his arms with 3-month-old Alexander, 1-year-old son and wife Bryanna, greeting them with hugs after returning from a 7-month world cruise with Britain’s Royal Navy.

“I am elated to see my new son and the rest of my family,” the chief petty officer said Wednesday just in time for Thanksgiving. “Alex is great and I missed him so much. He looks so cute in his sailor’s suit. It is perfect timing and I am grateful for the holidays.”

“We are just overwhelmed, so excited and feeling so blessed that he’s coming home,” his wife said. “He’s meeting his new baby too, so we are just so excited to have him home and get back to life. We are going to celebrate Thanksgiving and just spend time as a family.”

Further down the pier, Jessica Nelson and her children spotted husband/father Anthony Nelson on an upper deck. Minutes later, it was a hug-fest after a 7-month absence at sea.

The Nelson family during USS The Sullivans’ return at Naval Station Mayport, Nov. 24, 2021. (The Florida Times-Union/TNS)

“I am pretty happy to see everybody and glad to be home, especially this little one,” said Nelson, a logistics specialist, as he gazed at 9-month-old daughter Brynlee. “I am super happy for that and glad to be home for the holidays, be with the kids and eat lots of food, right guys?”

“Her second word was Dadda,” added Jessica, joined by their other children Blake and Bryce. “I am so excited for him to hear her say Dadda in person. She absolutely knows her daddy, doesn’t she?”

Historic name, historic deployment

The 505-foot-long ship’s name honors the memories of the five Sullivan brothers who died when a Japanese torpedo sunk their light cruiser 79 years ago.

The guided-missile destroyer is the second U.S. Navy vessel to honor George, Francis, Madison, Joseph and Albert Sullivan, all killed on Nov. 13, 1942, as the USS Juneau sank during the battle for Guadalcanal. The brothers served on the same ship despite a Navy wartime policy to separate family members.

To honor them, the current ship flies a red-bordered white flag with five gold stars on it, flapping stiffly in the wind under the American flag on its main mast as it came in Wednesday.

Escorted in by a Navy fireboat after its 57,500-mile deployment, the 30-year-old Arleigh Burke Class ship pulled up quayside with a shamrock decorating its aft funnel as a sailor dressed as a leprechaun waved with his 310 crewmates as they docked.

The Sullivans and Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen were deployed in May to work with the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth’s strike group, part of multinational operations and joint training exercises, the Navy said. Along with the Royal Navy Type-45 destroyers that embarked with the Queen Elizabeth, the Sullivans provided air defense protection for the strike group.

“The destroyer and her 280-strong crew have made a significant contribution, both in the pre-deployment exercising off the coast of Scotland last spring and throughout the CSG’s deployment since May,” according to a U.K. Ministry of Defense statement.

“USS The Sullivans played a key role in numerous exercises from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and back, including countries like Japan, Republic of Korea and Singapore, as well as NATO.”

Cmdr. James Diefenderfer Jr. said they were very fortunate to be part of that deployment, saying it was “decades in the making.”

U.S. Navy Cmdr. James Diefenderfer Jr. gets a high-five from his son during USS The Sullivans’ return at Naval Station Mayport, Nov. 24, 2021. (The Florida Times-Union/TNS)

“It shows the partnership and that we are allies through and through from here all the way across the world,” Diefenderfer said. “We proved that, sailing all the way to Guam and back and it’s a significant event.”

So thankful to be home for holidays

This means everything to the crew to get home in time for Thanksgiving, the commander said.

“Seeing the skyline of Jacksonville as we were coming in was a little surreal, like ‘Oh yeah, this is the end and we’ve finished the deployment and coming home safe,'” he said. “Then seeing all the families on the pier, there were a lot of not-dry eyes on board as they started to cheer for us. I appreciate all the families coming out.”

Awaiting the arrival along with hundreds of family members on the sunny, chilly day was Garry Cohn, the Navy League of the United States liaison with this destroyer. He also served on the first USS The Sullivans just before it was decommissioned in 1965. So he is happy that the latest ship and its crew just had a historic deployment and made it home for Thanksgiving.

“I wish I could have been aboard that ship. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime: a world cruise,” he said. “I never had the opportunity. … I am so proud of the men and women who serve aboard the ship.”

As the ship hove into view in the channel, family members cheered and waved as the crew lined every deck. One boy carried a sign with a list for his returning father: “Hug and kiss me, play with me, read to me, but first, kiss Mommy!” Another boy ran down the pier, waving multiple Navy and U.S. flags as he yelled “He’s never leaving again!”

On the decks, many sailors had bouquets of flowers as welcome-home gifts, brought out earlier by tugboats. Some on cellphones spotted spouses or family and waved at them, while Julie Mink was searching for her husband, Electronic Technician 1st Class Corey Mink.

The Mink family during USS The Sullivans’ return at Naval Station Mayport, Nov. 24, 2021. (The Florida Times-Union/TNS)

“We are excited and nervous and happy and tears are starting to come, every emotion you can think of,” Mink said, holding his newborn daughter, Charlotte. “We are thankful; definitely thankful, with good timing.”

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