Winter winds and a little Northwest rain couldn’t dampen spirits among the 100 or so people gathered at Bachmann Park in Bremerton. The crowd was there Sunday to welcome home the USS Nimitz, the first U.S. Navy aircraft carrier deployed after the pandemic shook the world, following an 11-month voyage.
Christine Smith was there with her husband and two teenage daughters to greet her son, Hayden Smith. The family traveled from Winter Park, Colorado, to form the mini welcoming committee. One of the girls held a “Welcome home Hayden!” sign and family friend Susan Rhodes, who lives in Duvall, clutched a Colorado flag so the 21-year-old sailor would spot them on shore.
“I can’t even describe it,” Smith said, as the ship became visible in the distance. “Emotions are running high. Not having seen our son, with everything that’s happened in the last year, it’s super emotional.”
Indeed, much has changed in the year since the 5,000 crew members boarded the ship on April 1 at Naval Base Kitsap in Bremerton. The coronavirus and social-justice uprisings have touched almost every facet of American life. A new president was elected. Rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol amid disinformation wildfires and conspiracy theories that have shaken the democratic institutions servicemen and women aim to protect.
Over the past 11 months, the nuclear warship completed five dual-carrier operations, including a NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan and defensive counter-air missions against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. It also participated in military exercises with Indian, Australian and Japanese forces. During the few times the Nimitz came into port, the crew was not permitted traditional shore leave because of the pandemic. Instead, they slept on board and were instructed to not interact with the public on land, The New York Times reported last month.
“The pandemic changed a lot of things that the Navy normally does,” Senior Chief Operations Specialist Torrence Mabry said in a statement. “Fortunately, we were the ship that was able to do it. … We did what we had to do around the world. Now is the time to enjoy the benefits and do the things you enjoy doing. Because you sacrificed and put your life on the line.”
Back in Poulsbo, Juanita Cordova has been tending to day-to-day domestic concerns without her husband, Damage Controlman 1st Class Anthony Cordova, at her side. The couple is familiar with the long separations military life entails, as Anthony has served for the last 16 years. But this time was different.
“Everything seems to fall apart when they go on deployment, so everything under the sun has broken in our RV, in our vehicles,” Juanita said. “I’ve had to have five different [medical] procedures done that popped up while he was gone. It’s been hard. And with COVID and the kids home from school, everything has been so much harder.”
Sunday marked the 340th day the couple had been apart, and Juanita would have to wait another 24 hours to see her husband, who had one more service day left on this deployment upon docking. “It’s a gut-puncher,” Juanita said. “For him to be right there and not be able to touch him, it stinks. But we’ve been doing this a long time, so I’ll try to make it one more day.”
When the Cordovas are finally reunited, however, at least the eating will be good.
“I plan on putting baked potato soup in the crockpot, and I’m gonna make him baked potato soup with tri-tip [beef] and a cherry cheesecake,” Juanita said. “He’s definitely missed our food.”
Seattle Times staff photographer Ken Lambert contributed to this report.