Loved ones separated by oceans got to hold each other for the first time in more than nine months Monday as the USS Harry S. Truman returned to Naval Station Norfolk from its extended deployment in European waters.
It had been 286 days since the last time the Truman and the more than 5,000 sailors aboard it were stateside.
“It’s the biggest relief ever just to see them again,” said Lt. Brandon Cockrum, who was one of the first sailors to disembark from the Truman to kiss his wife and clutch his children after what he called the “heartbreak” of having their deployment extended twice.
The Truman’s extended deployment was required to show the United States’ commitment to its NATO allies in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to Capt. Gavin Duff.
“Be proud of their resilience and grit, be proud of their strength of character, be proud of their fighting spirit, be proud of the heart that they put in every day we were gone, and be proud and grateful for the families that stood behind us throughout this journey,” Duff said on the pier as a procession of sailors in white Navy uniforms passed behind him.
Adm. Paul Spedero said the Truman’s mission is “done” and the carrier and its aircraft will now go into maintenance to prepare for the next deployment.
The ship was initially scheduled to return in May, but the outbreak of war in February indefinitely pushed back its return. This forced the Truman’s mission to transition to a greater focus on “enhanced vigilance activities” and “enhanced air policing” in conjunction with NATO allies, Spedero explained.
“The mission really shifted to doing as much as we could with NATO,” he said.
The effect of this delay was that sailors and their families — some with more experience dealing with the uncertainty of military service than others — missed spending critical moments together, from births to birthdays.
James Chesson, a 31-year-old catapult officer or “shooter” on the Truman, meaning he’s part of the team that prepares fighter jets for takeoff, met his 4-month-old son, Cooper, in person for the first time Monday.
His wife, Adrianne Chesson, said she talked to their 2-year-old son, Holmes, often about his dad. Chesson’s sister got him to record himself reading a book as a gift to Holmes as a way to help him cope with his dad being on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Once Chesson’s return date was on the horizon, the family began a countdown in which Holmes got to eat one turtle-shaped Goldfish cracker each day until the big day.
There were no more turtles left after Monday.
“I’ve never happy-cried for anything except for today,” Adrianne Chesson said.
The thousands gathered on the pier to welcome the Truman home personified the enduring love of those who stay stateside. Rudy Romero, with an American flag draped over his shoulders, spotted his 20-year-old son, Sonny Romero — who hadn’t been home to Texas in over two years — among the Navy whites lining the deck of the carrier.
Romero shouted, “I love you son!” over the anxious crowd before breaking out into tears.
“It’s been a long time,” Romero said. “It’s scary, all the Ukraine stuff and Russia it just — it’s hard.”
Ken Davis was waiting with a bouquet of sunflowers to welcome home a friend and former crewmate, who he referred to as “Damo.” Davis and Damo were on the USS Saipan, known among the crew as “The Big Deuce,” together beginning in 2005. Davis said they and their fellow service members have stayed close over the years, often checking in on each others’ family members or watching each others’ dogs.
“Sometimes the best family is the family you choose,” Davis said. “The whole Navy is like that.”
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