Two jet fighter squadrons returned home Wednesday from the USS Carl Vinson, bringing relief to anxious families after an unexpectedly tense deployment off the Korean Peninsula.
A total of eight Super Hornets from one squadron – VFA-192 – arrived in the first wave shortly before noon after launching off the Vinson a couple of hours earlier. Another squadron – VFA-2 – arrived in the afternoon and VFA-137 is due Thursday.
Meanwhile, about 690 sailors from Lemoore who are still aboard the Vinson will arrive by military passenger plane Friday after the aircraft carrier docks at its home port in San Diego.
Wednesday morning, wives and children of pilots waited at a hangar for the eight Super Hornet F/A-18E jet fighters, which performed a fly-by in formation and a mini-air show before the pilots landed.
Finally, after the pilots lined up and received permission to walk toward the hangar, their families rushed to greet them.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Lara Swinger, whose husband Cmdr. Mark Swinger is a pilot. “We’re very proud.”
They have two girls, Olivia, 4, and Madelyn, 2, who both had birthdays while their father was away. Tonight the family will celebrate the missed birthdays, Lara Swinger said.
Additionally, “we have tons of video to watch” of Olivia’s dance recital and other activities, she said.
There’s even an Easter basket and a Father’s Day gift waiting for her husband, she said.
The Vinson departed San Diego on Jan. 5 but the deployment to the western Pacific – including port visits to Fiji, Guam, Malaysia, Saipan, Singapore and the Solomon Islands – was unexpectedly extended for a month when the carrier was sent to the waters off the Korean Peninsula.
This was apparently intended to demonstrate a show of force to North Korea, which has a nuclear weapons testing program and has been rattling the region and the United States by performing missile tests.
The Vinson was accompanied by other warships in the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group.
“Their mission was to reassure our allies and partners of our steadfast commitment to other Indo-Asian-Pacific region,” the base said in an FAQ released to reporters.
Tensions rose both on the Vinson and at the base when it was reported that a state-run newspaper said North Korea’s military could sink “a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a single strike,” a statement viewed as referring to the Vinson, which at the time had been redirected to the North Pacific.
“It was definitely difficult knowing they were going to be out there for an extended period,” said Sarah Greer, 28, who was waiting for her fiancé. “But that’s the name of the game. You always have to be prepared for that.”
Masha St. George waited for her husband, Lt. Tom St. George.
She admitted to being “concerned” for her husband while at sea, “but I’m happy he was able to do something important for America.” Like the others, she and her husband kept in touch by email, she said.
Jessica Olsen, 28, is a graduate of Buchanan High and is married to Lt. Spenser Olsen, also a Buchanan grad who wanted to be a fighter pilot since childhood. They married in October and he deployed in January. She visited her husband during the Vinson’s stop in Singapore in April.
Although the extended Korean peninsula operation raised concerns, “I really trust in our Navy’s ability,” she said. “I was not scared for him. I was proud he could serve … Everyone is coming home safe.”
Spenser Olsen said the air temperature when he left the Vinson this morning was about 60 degrees, but the Valley’s famous heat won’t bother him.
“It’s actually not too bad,” he said. But, he said, “I missed the big ski year – the snow, all of it.”
Cmdr. Gerry Tritz, the squadron leader, told reporters at a brief news conference that four sailors had children born while they were away.
“The separation from family is tough,” he said. “Coming home never gets old.”
Everyone in the squadron will now take a couple of weeks vacation, he said.
Lt. Nicholas Parrish, who spent part of his childhood in Hanford, missed seeing the first steps of his daughter Molly, 13 months, but said he got to see her take steps on Facetime while he was in port.
“I’m proud to be an American and glad to be home,” he said.
Wife Jessica Parrish said she’s looking forward to a day with no extra activities.
“We’re just going to relax and enjoy being a family again,” she said. “Nothing special. This is special.”