USS Port Royal Returns After 7 Months Abroad

Civil service mariners, on board the Military Sealift Command rescue and salvage ship USNS Salvor, work to debeach the grounded USS Port Royal in February 2009. (US Navy photo)
Civil service mariners, on board the Military Sealift Command rescue and salvage ship USNS Salvor, work to debeach the grounded USS Port Royal in February 2009. (US Navy photo)

A $1 billion guided-missile cruiser that Navy brass had previously written off as permanently damaged goods from a 2009 grounding off Honolulu returned Friday morning from a successful seven-month deployment to the Middle East and South China Sea.

It was the first deployment for the USS Port Royal in 4-1/2 years, due to Navy and congressional wrangling over budget priorities that sidelined the ballistic missile defense-capable ship.

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"Both materially and from an operational standpoint by the crew, the ship did fantastic," said Port Royal commander Capt. Christopher Budde after the warship pulled up to a pier at Naval Station Pearl Harbor.

Budde took over command of the Port Royal on Feb. 24 from Capt. Adolfo Ibarra, who became chief of staff for Carrier Strike Group 9.

A five-piece Navy band, a hula group and more than 250 family members and friends were there to greet the Port Royal as its crew of more than 390 manned the rails in dress whites. Each of the sailors wore a purple-and-white orchid lei.

The deployment took the cruiser to the Arabian Sea, Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, South China Sea, Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.

Pearl Harbor's last remaining cruiser conducted joint maritime security exercises with Southeast Asian partners, theater anti-submarine operations, joint counter-terrorism/smuggling exercises, Pacific presence operations in the South China Sea and carrier strike group operations with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and USS Carl Vinson, the Navy said.

The Port Royal also provided protection for U.S. and international commerce and was a security presence near Yemen and Somalia.

One media report said the Port Royal was "harassed" by an Iranian navy 180-foot catamaran as the cruiser and two other U.S. Navy ships transited the Strait of Hormuz at night in mid-January.

"I don't know that it was anything that's not standard these days (with) Iranian boats approaching our ships," Budde said. "'Harassing,' I think, means a different level of intent. ... The Strait of Hormuz is a very busy waterway with traffic going across each other, so a lot of small boats are crossing perpendicular to the big shipping traffic. So I don't think there was any hostile intent indicated."

On the pier at Pearl Harbor, Terra Bledsoe was waiting with 5-month-old daughter Colleen -- a child Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Bledsoe, 33, a fire controlman on the Port Royal, had yet to see.

"It (the deployment) went a lot faster for me because of the baby, but I think it was a lot harder for him because he's dying to meet her," Terra Bledsoe said.

Melissa and John Hendrix flew in from Ohio to greet Melissa's 19-year-old son, Petty Officer 3rd Class Raymond Cooper, a gunner's mate who was returning from his first deployment.

"I couldn't not be here for this," Melissa Hendrix said. She served in the Navy and so did Raymond's father, and she wasn't sure how her son would do on his first ship deployment.

"He loves it. He absolutely loves it. I didn't know if he would," she said.

After the 2009 grounding and extensive repairs, Navy higher-ups decided -- incorrectly, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office -- that the ship had hidden maintenance problems and was a write-off.

The youngest cruiser in the Navy lineup returned Feb. 13, 2012, from an almost eight-month deployment that included participation in the end of the Iraq War. During the deployment, repairs had to be made in Bahrain to newly identified structural cracks.

The Navy wanted to retire the Port Royal but was rebuffed by Congress, which believed the Port Royal and other cruisers still had a lot of life left. The service was then forced to catch up on deferred maintenance so the Port Royal could deploy.

President Donald Trump, in calling for a 350-ship Navy, signaled support for the 22 cruisers in the fleet in a speech in Philadelphia in September.

"We will start by modernizing our cruisers to provide the ballistic missile defense capability our nation needs; this will cost around $220 million per modernization as we seek to modernize a significant portion of these 22 ships," Trump said.

The Navy said the Port Royal now is expected to go in for modernization in 2020.

"The Port Royal is a completely capable ship interoperable with other fleets, other strike groups ... so we're not worried about that at all. They were fully certified before this deployment, (and) they had a fantastic deployment," said Capt. Eric Weilenman, chief of staff for Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific.

Weilenman said there were no breakdowns on the deployment.

Another homecoming involved the Los Angeles-class submarine USS Louisville, which returned to Pearl Harbor on Thursday following a six-month Western Pacific deployment.

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