NORFOLK -- A sunny December day -- with a bit of rain -- felt a lot like summer for thousands of sailors as they walked off the Harry S. Truman during Sunday's homecoming.
After all, the carrier just became the first to enter the Arctic Circle in about 30 years.
Their one-word answer to describe the trek up north? "Cold."
So, winter back in Hampton Roads, even if a little wet, was a breeze, said Nick Dienna, the group's commanding officer.
"December in Norfolk feels wonderful," he said. "There's no place like home."
Strike group commander Rear Adm. Gene Black said the Truman's eight-month deployment was unlike any he had done before.
The group was the first to take part in Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' new strategy, called dynamic force deployment, which is meant to make U.S. forces more unpredictable and confuse adversaries. The carrier, air wing and several ships first left Norfolk on April 11 -- and for the next three months, it operated in the Navy's Sixth Fleet area of operations, where it struck the Islamic State group in Syria.
Then, unexpectedly, it returned to little of the usual fanfare in the middle of July for what leaders called a working port visit. At the end of August, the Truman again left Norfolk. Many families said that they were thankful for the extra time together, but that the second goodbye was even tougher than the first.
The second leg of the deployment closely followed the official re-establishment of the Navy's Second Fleet, which covers everywhere from the U.S. Eastern Seaboard to the northern coast of Russia and functions as a check on emerging threats from both China and Russia.
The Truman in October also took part in a massive NATO exercise called Trident Junction when the group traveled to the Arctic Circle.
"It was plenty cold," Black said. "I think my first hint was the snow coming down sideways."
With sailors working at least 12-hour shifts, the strike group worked with Norwegian ships to launch jet aircraft and test their capabilities in inclement weather. Black called it the highlight of the deployment.
"We made it look like we did this all the time," Black said.
Finally, Sunday's return was a true homecoming, with a ceremonial first kiss and plenty of parents meeting babies for the first time.
"We are so very happy to be here," Black said. "My message is very short: Thanks to Hampton Roads and all the communities that support the USS Harry S. Truman Strike Group. Thank you for your love and support."
The homecoming came at the perfect time -- right before the holidays, and early enough that the sailors can still help out with shopping for gifts, several people pointed out.
Kristie Vernon's wife joined the group for the second part of the deployment, which was the first of their marriage. Unfortunately, that meant they couldn't celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving together, she said. But Christmas with their 3-year-old son will be even more special, she said.
Many planned how to best make up for lost time, including Brooke DeCanio, who is several months pregnant. She said her family will leave their Christmas decorations up until at least the middle of January.
And for her, the Truman's homecoming date was twice as lucky -- it fell on her son's second birthday. Now, her husband will get to join the party with the rest of the family, she said.
"It's amazing," she said. "This is the icing on the cake -- literally."
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.