As the Navy ship Freedom passed under the Coronado Bay Bridge and came into view of the families gathered Monday at Naval Base San Diego, Gina Smith sighed with relief and anticipation.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s over. It’s really over.”
Smith’s husband, Michael, 38, is a senior chief petty officer. Smith, 40, has been through the stress of the stay-at-home spouse on previous deployments. It never gets routine.
But it is particularly arduous at Christmastime. Children ask why their mother or father isn’t home to help decorate the tree or take them to see Santa.
True, there is email on modern ships but an absent spouse is not there to help with the myriad details of what should be a festive family holiday.
“He’s been asking about his father since the day he left,” Erika Macias, 36, said of her 4-year-old son, Austin. “With Christmas coming, he was getting worried his father wouldn’t be here.”
The initial plans were for the Freedom to return Dec. 31 from its first deployment.
But mindful of the importance of holidays to maintaining the morale of sailors and their families, brass at San Diego-based 3rd Fleet changed the mission to get the ship back to San Diego before Dec. 25, said Cmdr. Dale Heinken, the ship’s captain.
The coming and going of Navy ships is an iconic part of San Diego, integral to what makes this region unique from the rest of Southern California.
The scenes rarely change, tears of anxiety from family members as the ships sail away, tears of joy as they return. At holiday season, the homecomings are particularly poignant.
Two weeks ago, it was an aircraft carrier and its air squadrons. Last week, a submarine. On Monday, it was the Freedom, the first of a new class of ship.
Navy decision-makers see the Freedom as the medium-sized vessel of the future — a littoral combat ship, sleek, fast, able to operate in shallow-water trouble spots, such as the Persian Gulf, and equipped to take part in such diverse missions as combat and disaster relief.
But to the families on the dock, the dimensions and capabilities of the ship were secondary: Their loved ones were coming home.
As Ezekiel Hernandez, 9, waited for his father, gunner’s mate Joel Hernandez, 32, he held a sign aloft: “Our Ohana Is Complete,” using a Hawaiian term for family.
“It’s Christmas now for us,” Ezekiel’s mother, Marcie, 32, said as the ship was pushed into position by a tugboat.
The Freedom left San Diego in March. In late July, a new crew flew to Singapore to “swap out” with the initial crew. It’s a strategy that the Navy hopes will allow ships to stay deployed longer.
The crew that arrived Monday helped deliver food and other supplies to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. There also were exercises with friendly navies in the Asia-Pacific region.
Kristin, 30, and Sean Patten, 28, were married two days before he left for Singapore. She was on the dock, increasingly anxious as the minutes before Freedom’s scheduled arrival seemed to drag on.
Andrew Taylor, 33, a Navy corpsman, was waiting with flowers for his wife, Blair Taylor, 27, who is also a corpsman.
“It’s always hard being a military spouse, but this time of year, it’s a bit harder,” he said.
With Lt. Jonathan Alston, 28, deployed, his partner, Josh Weitz, 26, bought a home for the couple in San Diego after sending pictures to him via email for approval. There’s a Christmas tree at the home but not a lot of presents.
“We have our presents,” Weitz said with a large smile. “He gets the house. I get him.”
Even with the ship back at its home port, there is still work to be done.
Giovanna Villa, 22, awaited her husband, Anthony Villa, 24, with a sign: “Welcome Home Anthony, My Love.”
The couple will have all day Tuesday together. But on Christmas morning, he is due back on the ship at 6 a.m. to stand a 24-hour watch.