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Norfolk sailors remain deployed as attacks in the Middle East escalate

USS Eisenhower landing F-18 Super Hornet in the Arabian Gulf. Dec. 1, 2023. Department of Defense
USS Eisenhower landing F-18 Super Hornet in the Arabian Gulf. Dec. 1, 2023. Department of Defense

This week, the USS Eisenhower strike group destroyed more than a dozen missiles and drones in the Red Sea, part of a series of attacks since the war between Israel and Hamas began in October.

The attacks make it increasingly less likely the two Norfolk-based carriers or the five other ships homeported in Hampton Roads will return quickly from the Middle East after the New Year. 

By next week, the USS Ford’s first deployment will go beyond eight months as it patrols the eastern Mediterranean. The Navy committed to shorter deployments after setting post-Vietnam records, during the pandemic, said Navy Human Factors Engineer John Cordle. 

“Six months is kind of the number people gravitate to for a deployment,” said Cordle, a retired Navy captain who works as a civilian for Commander, Naval Surface Force, Atlantic Fleet. “That's kind of a digestible number for the crew, for the families, and kind of gives you a sort of a balance between being home and being gone.”

The post-Vietnam record for a carrier is 340 days at sea, set by the USS Nimitz during its 11 months at sea. That deployment ended in February 2021. At the time, the Navy wanted to isolate ships that didn’t show signs of an outbreak of COVID-19.

The continued fighting in the Middle East makes it difficult for the Navy to release the two Norfolk-based carriers from the area. The Ford was recently extended again in December. 

Crews get into a rhythm during long deployments. Much of the strain comes from family separation, said Cordle, speaking for himself and not for the Navy. He was brought on to look at underlying causes after the USS McCain and then the USS Fitzgerald each crashed at sea. 

Researchers found lack of sleep contributed to those crashes. Overtime, constant sleep deprivation feels like alcohol use, Cordle said.

“You can’t react quickly in a crisis,” he said. 

Another part of the problem is the Navy continues to lack personnel. On average, ships don't have a full crew, either because they deployed short-handed, or because of injuries or illness, he said.

“Most of our ships hover around 90 percent,” he said. “That doesn't sound that bad, but if your normal Navy workweek is about 67 hours, with other duties it can be up to 81 hours. Well, if you're at 90 percent, you're pushing 100- hour weeks.”

If they are in a combat area, like the Middle East, the command will compensate by dropping ancillary duties that don’t directly contribute to keeping the ship ready to combat incoming fire, he said. 

“Right now, they’re focused mainly on missiles and drones,” Cordle said.

Other than the USS Eisenhower and the USS Ford, the other Norfolk-based ships in the region include the cruiser USS Philippine Sea, the destroyers USS Gravely and USS Laboon, and  two ships carrying Marines from Camp Lejeune, the USS Carter Hall and USS Bataan.

Steve joined WHRO in 2023 to cover military and veterans. Steve has extensive experience covering the military and working in public media, most recently at KPBS in San Diego, WYIN in Gary, Indiana and WBEZ in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he embedded with members of the Indiana National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq. Steve reports for NPR’s American Homefront Project, a national public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Steve is also on the board of Military Reporters & Editors.

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