USS Carl Vinson strike group returns to San Diego - San Diego, California News Station - KFMB Channel 8 - cbs8.com

USS Carl Vinson strike group returns to San Diego

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) - The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill and guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey returned to San Diego Wednesday after a deployment of nearly six months.

Friends and family gathered for joyful reunions at Naval Air Station North Island for the Vinson and its 6,000-plus crew, and at Naval Station San Diego for the Bunker Hill and Halsey.

"I'll take today over that day of leaving, it's unbearable," a Navy wife told a local tv station. "He's missed two Christmases, like three birthdays."

However, for nearly 1,000 relatives of sailors, the reunions came early when they flew to Hawaii to board the Vinson for what's known as a Tiger Cruise. During the Tiger Cruise, relatives lived aboard the carrier as the sailors do during the final leg of their journey home, from Honolulu to San Diego.

Air crews aboard the Carl Vinson flew nearly 1,100 missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan during the deployment, including close air support missions, airborne electronic warfare missions and airborne command and control missions, according to the Navy.

Pilots compiled around 6,600 flight hours during three months of operations in the North Arabian Sea earlier this year.

"This was the ship's second deployment in 18 months, and the crew performed superbly," said Capt. Kent Whalen, the Vinson's commanding officer. "I could not be more proud of my crew."

Their operations took place at a time of increasing tensions with Iran, which threatened to close the narrow Strait of Hormuz after economic sanctions began to affect its economy.

The vessels sailed through the strait without incident. During a previous deployment, however, a sailor aboard the Halsey went missing, and her body was recovered in the Gulf of Oman. Petty Officer Dominique Cruz, 26, of Panama City, Fla., was found dead a day after she was reported missing in January 2011.

During the latest deployment, the sailors also took part in exercises with Singapore, Britain, India and Australia and participated in humanitarian operations in several countries.

The Bunker Hill's commander, Capt. Michael Ford, said his crew was excited to be home after serving as the primary air defense vessel for the Vinson Strike Group.

Various squadrons from the air wing aboard the Vinson are also returning home to various bases across the country.

The vessels left San Diego on Nov. 30.

"It's a wonderful experience to come back home," a Navy commander from the aircraft carrier told News 8. "It's kind of indescribable after being gone for six months, and quite emotional, too."

The Navy has 58 surface ships in San Diego, plus a half-dozen submarines. The Vinson is San Diego's sole aircraft carrier until the USS Ronald Reagan returns early next year. The Reagan and its 2,500-person crew pulled out of San Diego in January and headed to Washington for maintenance work. By 2016, a third yet-to-be-named-carrier is expected to move into town.

Last month, Rear Adm. Dixon Smith, the commander of Navy Region Southwest, said the Navy has a $30.5 billion annual economic impact on San Diego, and that 26 percent of all jobs in the region are Defense Department-related.

The Navy estimates that growth could result in 8,100 more sailors stationed in San Diego in the future, bringing with them 6,700 family members.

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