ABOARD THE USS JOHN C. STENNIS, off the coast of Mexico >> Aidan Daniels’ journey toward his father began a little more than a week ago in the airport in Seattle, where he boarded a commercial flight headed over the Pacific. Six hours later, he landed in Honolulu and looked up into the eyes of his father, Lt. Cmdr. William Daniels, a Navy cryptologist. He had not seen him in seven months.
Aidan is 8 years old. He was soon to start one of the most unusual family reunions related to U.S. military service: a high-seas passage aboard a warship on its last leg home.
The nuclear aircraft carrier John C. Stennis had returned to U.S. waters after more than six months at sea, during which its aircraft flew the final Navy flight in the long war in Iraq, more than 1,000 combat sorties over Afghanistan and high-seas counterpiracy patrols in the North Arabian Sea.
The shared cruise pointed to how pride in service and deep stress can become entwined in military life. The sailors on the Stennis see themselves as one of the United States’ premier military units. But they realize that their ship is something else. It is also a globe-roaming office that separates families for months on end, carrying young women and men to war while saddling parents, partners and children with loneliness and strain.
Now they were almost back. As Aidan fell into his father’s embrace, nearly 1,100 relatives of other sailors were streaming through Honolulu. Soon they all boarded the Stennis at a pier in Pearl Harbor for the weeklong crossing of the Pacific to San Diego, through rough seas and stiff winds.
Known as a Tiger Cruise, such journeys are a quiet staple of the Navy, a variation on the meet-your-returning-sailor-in-port homecomings.
On the Stennis, with relatives packed from bow to stern, the ship sailed from the warmth and aqua-green blue of Oahu into rough weather. As the days passed, the guests were offered continual tours of the ship’s spaces and lessons on how sailors work, from the rules for prisoners in the brig to the activities in the space beneath the waves where bombs are stored and assembled.
The ship provided daytime sports and evening blues concerts in the hangar bay, an air show on the second day out of Hawaii and, one night, a dinner of steak and lobster as the carrier rose and fell on the sea.
As the ship closed the distance to the mainland, flying fish broke the surface and glided downwind, escaping the path of the bow.
Those who have sailed on such cruises say they are adventures and become shared moments in families’ lives that are often remembered for decades. Those who organize them say something more important happens. Families that have been separated become reacquainted and begin to sort through the rough rhythms of returning home.
Saturday evening, on the bridge of the Stennis, whose home port is Bremerton, Wash., the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Ronald Reis, talked children through what he does from his captain’s chair. He explained the instrumentation. He allowed two boys to steer the massive vessel through 10 degree turns. He explained the radar images on a screen in front of his chair.
He discussed how the ship and its aircraft can fight. And he discussed the dangers on the deck below, where members of his crew were moving aircraft, readying for flights the next day. He pointed to a digital anemometer. The bridge was swept by winds blowing across the bow at 46 knots. The seas were gray and lumpy, and they surged with bright white spay.
“We are worried about the sailors down there,” he said.
As the boys left, he spoke of a larger set of thoughts behind these at-sea reunions. “Let the healing begin,” he said.
He let the thought sink in. “We’ve been gone a long time,” he said.
These thoughts seemed mirrored in the relief, not articulated but visible, in Aidan Daniels. Midway to San Diego after spending days walking in quiet awe behind his father, he recalled a high point: the sense of a connection being restored.
“My heart was pounding,” he said, of his anticipation. “I had not seen him in seven months.”
Throughout the trip, the ship’s work continued. Family members were offered the chance to work alongside the crew, observing watches and helping in the morning cleaning of the ship. Each day gave way to exhaustion, a result of the rocking ship and round-the-clock work.
“There were parents yesterday sleeping on the mess decks, because they were so worn out,” said Chris Cation, the civilian who organized the cruise. (The guests aboard the carrier were luckier than those on the smaller destroyers and the cruiser accompanying the massive ship. The carrier rolled and swayed, but the little ships pitched, plunged and heaved in the big seas, sometimes even burying their bows. More than 75 percent of their guests were seasick, one officer said.)
One senior officer said these experiences can lead to insights in a sailor’s family that can alleviate strain in future deployments. “It gives a better idea of what Mom or Dad does out here,” he said.
The cruise comes with strict rules and potential risks.
To prevent tension or undue distraction, sailors can invite only guests with whom they have no intimate relations. Children and parents of sailors crowd the vessels; spouses are not allowed. (Many spouses did accompany children to Hawaii, where they had overnight reunions with their sailors before handing off children for the cruise and flying back to the mainland for the traditional reunion on the piers.)
To guard against the potential for falls on the ship’s many ladderways, guests must be at least 8 years old and pass a medical review before invitations are formalized months in advance.
Even with the medical screening, Cation and the ship’s senior enlisted sailor, Command Master Chief Stanley Jewett, admitted to living nervously while the guests are aboard. “Probably my worst nightmare is someone falling of the ship,” Jewett said. “Some little 10-year-old kid falls over into 15-foot seas.”
He said he also worries that guests, who are not trained or necessarily as disciplined as the sailors, might smoke in the wrong place or time and ignite jet fuel. For this reason, he had assigned security patrols to gently enforce the rules.
There were few signs, though, of ill behavior. Mostly there was a quiet calm, and scenes of parent-child reverie.
Linda Alvarez, 10, whose father, Chief Warrant Officer Mario Alvarez, is a maintenance supervisor in one the shipboard helicopter squadrons, walked slowly through the hangar bay, describing battling slight dizziness from the sea state and the week’s worth of new experiences.
Her father described the reunion. It was simple. “We cried,” he said. “We hugged and cried. And I told her how much I miss her and look forward to being home the next few months.”
The ship steamed on, beneath their feet, its bow crashing through the seas, almost there.