USS George Washington Arrives in Norfolk for Historic Swap

USS George Washington

NORFOLK -- Petty Officer 1st Class Tim Walden's 2-year-old daughter called him "Daddy" for the first time on Thursday.

Walden, of Newport News, reunited with his wife, Courtney, and daughters Zoe, 3, and Teagan, his youngest who wasn't yet talking when he left 9 months ago for a deployment aboard the USS George Washington. He was one of about a dozen sailors selected to receive the ceremonial "first kiss."

"I've got a lot of kissing to do," he said while eagerly waiting in the hangar bay as the ship slid into Naval Station Norfolk.

This was the aircraft carrier's first homecoming in Hampton Roads, its new home port, since 2008. The ship is on deck to enter Newport News Shipbuilding for its midlife overhaul and refueling that will begin in 2017.

Washington had been the United States' only forward-deployed carrier, meaning it was always ready to respond when actions were taken overseas. It left Japan in May for the seven-month, 52,064-mile trek home. Along the way, the carrier stopped in Australia and South America for training operations with allied countries.

There also was a 10-day pause in San Diego to swap half its crew, about 1,400 sailors, with the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan, which went on to take the Washington's place in Japan. Most of those crew members will return to San Diego to man the USS Theodore Roosevelt over the next few days.

The unprecedented three-carrier swap has been commemorated by the crew with belt buckles and T-shirts. They've been dubbed the three-presidents crew, or CVN 220 -- the sum of all three carriers' hull numbers.

"It's something that's never happened before in the history of the Navy," said Command Master Chief Spike Call.

The Gerald R. Ford, built by Newport News Shipbuilding, is the first in a new class of U.S. aircraft carriers. It is scheduled for commissioning in 2016.

Call and others on board said it was challenging, and stressful at times, for the crews to intermingle, but they did it.

"We fast became family, and now the hardest part is to break up the family."

The Washington's leaders pointed to the consistency of training and the flexibility of the crew that made the transitions work.

Sailors from other ships, including USS Abraham Lincoln and aircraft carrier Gerald Ford -- both of which are at the Newport News shipyard -- also helped supplement Washington's piecemeal crew. Petty Officer 1st Class Erik Norman, a Ford sailor, said he was able to earn qualifications in several areas while aboard the Washington.

"I didn't realize the magnitude of what was happening with the carrier swap," Norman, who lives in Chesapeake, said when he was first asked to volunteer. "But I'm proud to have been a part of it."

Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Greicko, who lives in Suffolk, said he was eager to get back to the Ford to see how it had changed during the four months they'd been gone.

The Ford, a new class of carrier, is under construction and nearing completion, while the Lincoln is undergoing the overhaul Washington will get next. Greicko and Norman said they had fielded some questions about what it would be like in the yard.

"It's a different mindset," Norman said, "to go from operational ship to the yard, but there's always work to be done."

The hangar bay, empty of the usual aircraft that are parked or maintained there while the carrier is underway, was filled with boxes from nearly every department. They were to be airlifted to the Roosevelt in California. Only about 700 sailors, mostly those with ship-specific knowledge like the command trio and those who work on its nuclear reactors, will remain on the Washington.

Many of the sailors worked until the very last minute, saying they wanted to leave things in order for the next crew to take over. Others enjoyed the down time with the ship empty of its air wing, and only a small crew was needed to maintain its systems. The media department played a 19-hour marathon showing all six films in the "Star Wars" saga. Several sailors mentioned they were planning to see the series' newest installment this weekend.

The last night on board was toasted with ice cream -- a tradition the crew has enjoyed at each port arrival -- and a steak and crab leg dinner.

"This is not just any port," said Lt. Cmdr. Rasaq Baloquin, who runs all the carrier's food service and hospitality. "This is the GW coming home."

More notable perhaps was what the ship lacked the last few days. Eggs at breakfast, soda and lettuce had run out, Baloquin said. It happens from time to time, he said, but the crew understands and doesn't complain too much. Their last replenishment was in Brazil on Dec. 4. Another is expected Friday.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Demarius Shaw, of Hampton, said he missed a lot during his first deployment. That includes the birth of his second child, a son named Kaiden. The family was able to talk on the phone, but nothing could replace holding the 2-month-old in his arms, Shaw said.

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