Close deployments, divided families

‘Indescribable emotions’ as a shrinking fleet takes toll

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Aircraft carrier crews and their families are devising creative ways to cope with the stresses and strains of increasingly long and frequent deployments.

Before he deployed on the USS John C. Stennis in August, Kristina Bennett’s husband recorded himself reading storybooks for their 6-month-old son.

“Plus, I have voice mails to play for myself and our son so we can hear his voice anytime we want,” said Mrs. Bennett, 26, of Bremerton, Wash.

The Stennis deployment came as a surprise because the carrier returned in March from a seven-month deployment in the Middle East. It originally was scheduled to redeploy in December for four months, but instead sailed in August for an eight-month deployment.

“Only a few weeks before that, we were told we were not going to deploy early. [I felt] shock, hurt, indescribable emotions,” Mrs. Bennett, a tax preparer, told The Washington Times. “Disbelief and anger.”

“Because of the first deployment, my husband missed the pregnancy, birth and the first eight weeks of our son’s life,” she said. “And because of the second deployment, my husband has been in our son’s first year of life for a total of 10 weeks.”

The Stennis is due home in April — and not a moment too soon for Callie Stewart, 23: Two weeks before her husband deployed in August, the newlyweds found out that they are expecting a child.

“We were all shocked [about the deployment]. No one was prepared for this. Instead of a four-month deployment, they left four months early and have a doubled deployment time frame,” she said, adding that the couple spent only 10 weeks together last year.

“And this year I won’t see him until the spring. Makes being a newlywed a little sad,” Mrs. Stewart said.

The Times has reported that sailors and Marines who serve on aircraft carriers can expect long deployments for the next few years because of conflict in the Middle East and a shrinking number of carriers available for duty.

With the deactivation of the USS Enterprise last month and the ongoing, four-year overhaul of the USS Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. fleet of aircraft carriers has been reduced from 11 to nine.

Tasked with keeping two carriers in the Middle East and one in the Asia-Pacific region, the Navy has lengthened the duration of deployments from six months to as long as nine, and has increased their frequency.

For example, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower had been scheduled to return to the U.S. from a nine-month deployment to the Middle East early this year and be relieved by the USS Nimitz.

But in late November, the Navy announced that repairs on the Nimitz would not be completed until this summer. So the Eisenhower returned in late December and will deploy again to the Middle East in February — a two-month turnaround.

When the change was announced, some family members went to the carrier’s Facebook page to express dismay.

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