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5,000 sailors head to Mediterranean aboard USS Eisenhower: ‘It’s real now’

Kelly Holbert comforts her son, Kelly Michael Holbert, 3, as they wave to her husband Petty Officer First Class Drew Holbert aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)

“I see him!” exclaimed 8-year-old Penelope Holbert, vigorously waving. Her father, Petty Officer first class Drew Holbert waved back from a platform at the stern of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Holbert, an aviation structural mechanic, was one of 5,000 sailors who deployed Saturday aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower — the flagship of the Ike carrier strike group. It has long been scheduled to deploy this week to the Mediterranean.

Kelly Holbert held the couple’s 3-year-old son, comforting him as the warship prepared to push off at Naval Station Norfolk. This is Drew’s second deployment, with the first in 2017.

“It is different now,” Kelly said. “We have three children, dogs, we own a house. … There is more responsibility for me, and more for him to miss.

The Eisenhower is expected to be deployed for about six months.

“This time, he’s gonna miss Halloween — which is his favorite holiday — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, our wedding anniversary, his birthday, their birthdays. He’s missing everything,” Kelly Holbert said, tears streaking her cheeks.

The Eisenhower’s deployment comes amid rising tensions in the area. Hamas, which most Western countries have declared a terrorist organization, launched an attack last week on Israel that left more than 1,300 dead after fighters stormed through the border fence and gunned down hundreds of Israelis in their homes, on the streets and at an outdoor music festival. Many were taken hostage.

Israel responded by sealing off the Gaza Strip — a roughly 25-mile parcel of land wedged between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea that is home to 2.3 million Palestinians. Israel forces have stopped the entry of food, water, fuel and medicine and are bombarding the region with airstrikes, the Associated Press reported.

“I am scared,” Kelly Holbert said, her voice shaking. “It’s real now.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin could order the Eisenhower strike group to sail to the eastern Mediterranean. Rear Adm. Marc Miguez, commander of the strike group, did not comment Friday on specific future operations, but said, “the global environment is dynamic” and “the enemy gets a vote.”

“Our deployment will undoubtedly strengthen relationships with our allies and partners. We share the load to deter aggression and if required, deliver overwhelming combat power,” he said.

The energy on the ship, senior leadership said, is invigorating.

“There’s a lot of excitement to get forward and strengthen alliances,” said Capt. Mitch McAllister, commander of Carrier Air Wing 3. “I think you can make an argument right down that NATO has never been more important. We’re going to have an opportunity very soon to go forward and operate with our allies and partners.”

The Virginia Beach strike fighter squadrons known as Gunslingers, Fighting Swordsmen, Rampagers and Wildcats will embark with the group. Norfolk groups include the Screwtops of Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 123, the Dusty Dogs of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 7 and the Rawhides of Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 40.

The warship will also be supported by Norfolk-based cruiser USS Philippine Sea and destroyer USS Gravely — both departed Friday. The USS Mason, a destroyer, departed Friday from Naval Station Mayport in Florida.

“What we do on a daily basis matters. And we are going to make history in some form, fashion, function, wherever we go,” Miguez said.

The carrier was scheduled to push off Friday, but experienced a 24-hour delay.

“It gave us extra time … but he was anxious to get going,” Carol Maher said of her grandson Mason Dollar, 21.

Dollar is an aircrew survival equipmentman for an embarked helicopter squadron. His grandma and three cousins made the drive from Texas to see him off for his first deployment.

“We know what is going on in the world,” Maher said, tears forming in her eyes. “It is a bit scary for all the sailors.”

Maher said she feels sadness and anxiety, and through all that — pride.

“God will be with them,” Maher said. “And we will see them all when they get back.”


© 2023 The Virginian-Pilot

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