The aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower returned to Virginia in August after nearly seven months at sea without a port call. The ship's return came four months after the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group saw its planned homecoming canceled by the pandemic.
And early in the year, the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group returned to the U.S. after 10 months deployed. Families whose loved ones unexpectedly missed Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's told Military.com the deployment "rocked people in a whole new way."
The Navy, though, hasn't tied any specific deployment extensions to retention dips, Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell said Thursday at a virtual event hosted by the U.S. Navy Memorial.
"Interestingly, the secretary of defense asked this same question about a week ago," Nowell said. "... We certainly see when we're running the force too hard that overall retention suffers. But we can't link any extended individual strike group or expeditionary strike group deployments with higher rates of folks not re-enlisting or attrition."
Nowell stressed that that doesn't mean Navy leaders think extended deployments are OK. The service has been grappling with a host of challenges that have left ships deployed longer than planned.
When the aircraft carrier Lincoln was deployed last year, the Harry S. Truman was supposed to replace it in the Middle East. But that plan was derailed in September when the Truman stayed back, still undergoing electrical repairs, as four other vessels with the strike group deployed without it.
The Lincoln had to remain at sea until the Truman could relieve it. And once the Truman did deploy in November, it faced its own mission extension when another carrier -- the Theodore Roosevelt -- was sidelined in the Pacific after a deadly coronavirus outbreak on the ship.
That crisis is what prompted the Eisenhower to extend its time at sea, avoiding scheduled port calls in COVID-19 hot spots where rates of the illness caused by the coronavirus were high.
Nowell said what's proven to help crews cope with the uncertainty is understanding their mission and why the extensions are important.
"That's more fulfilling than if they think that they're trying to do too much in the [areas of operation] and they don't understand, 'Why is it that I'm having to do this?' Especially amid COVID."
The Navy has seen record-setting retention rates in recent years. The service announced in January that it blew past 2019 retention goals for enlisted sailors in several zones. Leaders at the time attributed that to a changing Navy culture, which is more family-friendly and responsive to sailors' wants.
But continued deployment extensions that leave families separated for months could jeopardize some of those gains. Still, Nowell said, leaders remain optimistic about re-up rates.
"Our overall retention numbers remain the highest that we've ever seen," he said. "... And quite frankly, as we look at what's going on with the economy and the security that the Navy provides ... we think that we will continue to see that retention stay pretty high."