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Ship in a supporting role gets big ovation

The crew of the Antietam, returning from carrier escort duty in the Persian Gulf, receives an enthusiastic welcome in San Diego.

August 28, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- In Navy parlance, they're small boys, the ships that accompany an aircraft carrier into harm's way.

For the most part, they toil in anonymity. The media and politicians love the grandeur of the "floating cities" that are aircraft carriers.

After President Bush ordered the strike group led by the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis into the Persian Gulf in January as a show of strength to the bellicose regime in Tehran, wire service accounts mentioned "the Stennis and its accompanying ships."

And Monday when the Stennis returned to San Diego Bay, much of the public attention was lavished at the 1,100-foot-long carrier as it docked at North Island Naval Air Station to offload sailors and Marines before leaving for its home port at Bremerton, Wash.

A lesser crowd was waiting across the bay at the 32nd Street Naval Base for the return of one of those "accompanying ships," the guided-missile cruiser Antietam.

Although the Antietam is barely half the length of the Stennis and its crew of 360 is dwarfed by the crew of 5,500 aboard the carrier, there was nothing small about the joy among Antietam families as they waited at the pier.

Several hundred family members waited eagerly, some decked out in T-shirts with their loved one's name or picture. Flags, banners, signs, balloons (red, white and blue, naturally), cameras and tears were the order of the day.

Forty-one family members and friends came from Arizona and throughout Southern California to welcome home Arturo Villa, 32, a petty officer first class recently selected as a chief petty officer, a major boost in responsibility. Many wore T-shirts decorated with his name and picture and words of congratulations.

For his wife, Wendy, it was a familiar scene. She has been through four deployments during her husband's 14 years in the Navy. The separations don't get easier.

"It was a little harder this time," she said. "The boys are older now, they need their dad. But this is something my husband loves to do."

Like other Antietam family members, she admits some annoyance that the carriers get most of the attention.

"We notice that, but you know, we're all so busy and so worried when the guys are gone that we don't have time to be bothered by it," she said.

Although the public may be unaware that carriers do not deploy alone, small-boy families know the truth.

"Like Hillary [Clinton] says, 'It takes a village,' " said Janet Hansen, waiting for her son, Michael Hansen, 20, petty officer third class.

Hansen's wife, Jessica, 21, agreed. She brought the couple's children, Janet, 10 months, and Odin, 2, for the reunion with their father.

"He didn't deploy for glory," she said. "He went because it's his job: protecting us."

Two other escort ships, the guided-missile destroyers O'Kane and Paul Hamilton, remained at their home port of Pearl Harbor when the strike group arrived there from the Persian Gulf last week. (Another member of the strike force and not considered a small boy, the supply ship Bridge, is headed for Bremerton.) The guided-missile destroyer Preble is due home in San Diego on Wednesday.

Jenna Peake knows a truth about carriers and small boys. She's also in the Navy, assigned to the carrier Ronald Reagan.

"Sailors work harder on the small ships," she said as she and her 3-week-old daughter, Bianca, awaited the return of Peake's husband, Barry, 24.

Some of the family members recalled that when the Antietam left in January, nearly all the reporters and photographers bivouacked at North Island watching the Stennis.

On Monday, as if to make amends, there was a smattering of journalists covering the Antietam's arrival, as well as a balloon-twister and a character ("Otter") from SeaWorld.

Alicia Smith and her children, Timothy, 4, and Samantha, 1, were waiting for her husband, Dan, 29, a petty officer first class.

The family moved home to Dallas to wait out the deployment; the deployment was particularly difficult for her son, Smith said.

"All he ever talks about is 'Where's daddy? When's daddy coming home?' " she said. "This morning at the hotel, he was up early, telling me, 'Today is the day daddy comes home!' "

As the Antietam came into view, a cheer rippled through the crowd.

As it moved closer, the strains of an Elvis Presley song, "All Shook Up," could be heard from the ship. A banner on the side of the ship read, "We Missed You and Thanks for the Great Support."

Villa was one of the first sailors off the ship. Hugging his wife, his mother, Maria, and his sons, Anthony, 7, and Jeremy, 13, he said the lack of acclaim for his ship is not an issue. Small-boy sailors are used to it.

"We don't need recognition," he said. "We know we do a good job."

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