It's not uncommon for Navy deployments to run late, but when news hit this fall that the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group had been slapped with its fourth extension and there was no end in sight, things began unravelling for some families waiting at home.
"That one, I think, definitely rocked people in a whole new way," said Diane Helmer, whose husband is an officer with Strike Fighter Squadron 25.
Capt. Walter Slaughter, the aircraft carrier Lincoln's commanding officer, broke the news in a late-October video message -- almost seven months into the strike group's deployment. Men and women on some of those ships not only would miss Halloween with their families, but also Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's celebrations.
"I had a breakdown unplugging our Halloween lights because they were supposed to be home by then," said one spouse, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution for her enlisted husband. "I was confirming not only that he wasn't going to be here when he was supposed to, but I had to grasp the idea of decorating for Christmas by myself."
She and their three small children live on the West Coast, and her family on the East Coast.
"Once we found out they're not going to be here for Christmas, to get a family member to fly out here last minute so we're not alone is like $1,000," she said.
By the time the Lincoln and its guided-missile cruiser escort, the Leyte Gulf, return to the U.S. this month, they'll have spent nine-and-a-half months at sea. As the Navy experiments with a more unpredictable deployment model, some fear that could become the norm.
"I hope that leadership will see that long deployments like this are not healthy and they all make every effort to ensure this does not happen more frequently," the enlisted sailor's wife said.
In an interview with Military.com as the Lincoln transited back to the States, Slaughter gave assurances that deployments won't always look like this one.
"This certainly was outside what anybody would characterize as a normal," the carrier's captain said. "There were extraordinary circumstances."
The extensions were caused by rising tensions in the Middle East as well as serious carrier maintenance problems. The Harry S. Truman was slated to replace the Lincoln in the Middle East, but four ships with its carrier strike group left it behind in September as it underwent electrical repairs.
Until the work was done, there simply wasn't another carrier to relieve the Lincoln. As USNI News reported in October, six East Coast carriers were nondeployable, tied up in various states of maintenance or training.
As one sailor's mom put it at the time, the Navy appeared to be floundering.
"Scrambling, that's the word that comes to mind -- they're scrambling," Joan McCue said. "And that's not real comforting for families."
As the extensions continued, Helmer said her faith began to erode.
"I would say the trust has been broken with big Navy," she said. "How could you not be disappointed? This is a deep hurt for a lot of people."
A 'Record-Setting' Deployment
The Lincoln Carrier Strike Group set out April 1 for what was supposed to be a round-the-globe deployment.
The carrier Lincoln was switching homeports from Virginia to San Diego. Some families moved out to the West Coast ahead of the deployment. Others planned to do it while their sailor was gone, just before school ended, or once the deployment wrapped up.
The strike group was already busy before the extensions started. The ships were ordered to the Middle East in May to help temper Iranian aggression. Slaughter said tensions were high when they first arrived, and while they never went away completely, things began to de-escalate.
"Having a carrier striker on station certainly is a message that we're concerned about what's going on in that part of the world," he said.
Slaughter said the Lincoln had some encounters with Iranian aircraft and fast boats, but he characterized them as routine and professional. "In line with historic norms," he added.
The carrier's air wing was flying almost daily missions in Afghanistan and Syria while they were in the region. That included 392 combat sorties and 42 precision-guided munitions dropped, Slaughter said.
He acknowledged the extensions were tough on the crew, especially those with young families.
Slaughter said he was open and honest with his crew, never holding back information, whether good or bad.
"I think they got to understand that that leadership wasn't keeping any secrets from them," he said. "When we knew our schedule and changes to our schedule, they knew it."
The Navy family members who spoke to Military.com about the Lincoln's deployment all referenced Slaughter's video messages and said they appreciated his efforts to get information back to them.
But adding repeated extensions only added to the stress that already comes with deployments, such as worrying about their loved one and taking care of families and households alone.
McCue said her daughter-in-law was forced to cut back her hours at work to care for her three young daughters. Helmer runs her own business, and was also preparing for her husband's transition out of the Navy right after this deployment.
And families who were planning to move out to their new homeport in San Diego after the deployment was over were forced to extend leases in Virginia unexpectedly or make the cross-country trip without their sailor.
All the family members said they were worried about morale and stress levels with the crew -- especially as the Navy grapples with high suicide rates. The enlisted wife who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her husband said he had a panic attack after learning about yet another extension last year.
Slaughter said leadership did their best to keep the crew motivated. They typically flew aircraft off the carrier six out of seven days a week, so they tried to schedule activities on no-fly days, such as picnics on the flight deck or 5K runs.
"Mental health concerns are something we take very seriously, not just in the Navy but across the entire [Defense Department]," he said.
When he would announce another extension to the already lengthy deployment, he said he was sure to point people to their resiliency counselors, chaplains or other support networks. He also stressed that they should talk to their fellow sailors if they were feeling stressed, since peers tend to be big influencers.
"Part of that is taking away the stigma about asking for help," Slaughter said. "We've spent a lot of time making sure folks understand it is OK to talk to somebody -- there's no bad outcomes attached to that."
Despite the stress of being pulled away from home longer than planned, especially around the holidays, Slaughter said they didn't see significantly higher visits for mental health compared to Navy norms.
"We certainly track these things, but our numbers are in line with what we've seen on past deployments," he said.
As the deployment finally came to a close in January, the Navy posted the New Year's Day deck log by Quartermaster 3rd Class Sara Nevison, who's deployed on the Lincoln. In Navy tradition, Nevison's reflections are written in verse and offer a glimpse into the carrier's nine-plus-month deployment.
"Extensions upon extensions -- The ship was very much needed," she wrote. "Missing holidays with family -- Everyone felt defeated.
"... As we start off a new year, Lincoln Sailors are in joy and glee, To what we leave behind in 2019."