NORFOLK -- With no band playing or ceremonial first kiss planned, the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group, with its nearly 6,500 sailors, pulled into Naval Station Norfolk Saturday to little of the usual fanfare.
Officials repeatedly stressed the docking is not a homecoming. The group just deployed on April 11. Instead, the ship's return is the first in a broader strategy for the military to become more unpredictable. The carrier remains mission-ready and could be deployed at any time over the next several months, Strike group commander Rear Adm. Gene Black said.
"We hadn't planned to be back but it's a welcome break," Black said. "You'll notice, I'm in a working uniform and captain is in his flight suit. We don't have any balloon makers. We don't have a band and all that. This is a working port."
Nick Dienna, the commanding officer, said he doesn't know when they'll be able to tell sailors if and when they're redeploying. The strike group prepares to get under way with virtually no notice, he said.
The situation -- an early return followed by several uncertainties -- meant some families had mixed feelings when they came out on a rainy morning to greet their sailors.
"The excitement is there, of course, but it's also the unpredictableness of what's to come," said Francesca Stenersen, whose husband has been in the military for eight years. "(The anxiety) is always there."
Because the return wasn't a homecoming, sailors were still getting off the ship when media was escorted off the base, making them unavailable for interviews.
The shift in military strategy became clear earlier this year, when Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis testified before the House Armed Services Committee on April 12 that he wanted U.S. forces to surprise their adversaries more.
During deployment windows, ships may now operate off the coast, perform joint operations, stay ashore and be out for a shorter deployment, Mattis said.
Originally, the Truman planned to travel to the Middle East and Europe, then return in November seven months after deployment, Black said. Instead, the Truman carrier only went near Europe and came back four months early.
"What you're seeing is the Navy's execution of dynamic force employment in support of the national defense strategy," Black said. "We're strategically predictable and operationally unpredictable."
While overseas, the strike group worked off Morocco, struck ISIS in Syria, expanded partnerships and supported Baltic operations. When the Truman is in port, there will be routine maintenance and sailors will continue training, Navy Adm. Christopher Grady, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said in a statement.
"We're in until we're told to sail," Black said. "We could deploy next week and go right back over to sixth fleet or fifth fleet. We're 100 percent ready to go, we're fully mission capable. Based on the performance I've seen to date, there's no challenge you can throw at my sailors that they won't crush."
Even if the return is brief, it is a welcome one for thousands of families, like Taylor Ratzel's. Her husband deployed when their daughter, Braelynn, was just two months old. Now, instead of Taylor updating her husband by shipping memory cards full of photos of their daughter, he will be present.
"I'm hoping she'll walk to him, but we'll see how that goes," Ratzel said, laughing.
She feels anxious about the unknowns ahead, but she said right now, she's just happy he's coming home.
This article is written by Peter Coutu from The Virginian-Pilot and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.