USS Philippine Sea returns home to Mayport after Suez Canal delay

Operations Specialist returned by plane to make transfer date in time, describes special reunion

Roughly 300 sailors aboard the USS Philippine Sea and its helicopter strike squadron returned home to Naval Station Mayport on Wednesday morning after a 10-month deployment.

The separation was a bit longer than scheduled because the guided-missile cruiser was trying to transit the Suez Canal when a container ship got stuck, blocking the canal for six days. COID-19 issues also complicated the deployment.

Loved ones lined the dock anxiously waiting for their sailors to step off the ship.

“All the emotions in one,” said Marcy Quick, who brought her three children. “It was so worth it to see these three to see their dad. So worth it.”

“It is awesome,” said one of the boys in the arms of his father, Blake Quick, for the first time since last summer.

“It was challenging,” the sailor said of the trip. “The captain (and) crew, we did a great job out there. Now we’re home (for) well-deserved leave. I just can’t wait to sit down on my couch for a bit.”

While Aaron Vital was at sea traveling nearly 60,000 nautical miles, his wife delivered their son -- one of at least 11 children born in families of the crew.

“I can’t believe it,” he said.

“I am just happy,” Stephanie Vital siad. “It’s been a while since he’s been away. Now he can be with us and our son.”

For the Malczynskis, whose daughter was aboard the USS Philippine Sea, these reunions never get old.

“She is tough,” Cathy Malczynski said. “We are a military family. He was in the Navy. Her brother is a Marine and her other brother is Coast Guard. We are used to this.”

Early arrival

Operations Specialist First Class Christopher Stephens was aboard but arrived home a week early. Stephens told News4jax with his family relocating soon to Virginia, he returned early to avoid the risk of missing his transfer date.

While the Stephens are accustomed to homecoming occurring on the ship, this latest homecoming was at the Jacksonville International Airport. Stephens’ wife, Whitney, remembers waiting for her husband at the airport with their two young children.

“I remember him texting me, being like, ‘alright, I’m walking down the tunnel,’” Whitney Stephens said. “And I remember, I just thought my heart was going to fall out of my body!”

While an airport reunion isn’t how they’ve done it in the past, OS Stephens couldn’t have been happier.

“It’s a different feeling knowing that you’re coming home to them in a different manner, but they’re still waiting there for you,” OS Stephens said. “The same as when you come home on the boat.”

Wednesday, Stephens’ fellow sailors aboard the Philippine Sea will do just that. It was a mission that came with issues right at the end. The vessel was stuck, along with hundreds of others for several days in the Suez Canal. This happened after a cargo ship ran aground, causing a maritime traffic jam.

With Navy life being unpredictable at times, Whitney Stephens believes in putting the best foot forward. The Family Readiness Group is a local support group aimed to help military spouses and families navigate through the challenges. As president of the FRG, she says tackling the unexpected one day at a time with that built-in support system helps a great deal.

“We’re all better together than we are apart,” Stephens said. “It eases some of the struggles and the transition to having somebody going through the exact same thing you are.”

It’s been a week since OS Stephens’ return, but a sign marking 9 months down for his deployment still hangs in their kitchen. The hand-crafted signs from their reunion at the airport are by the front door.

OS Stephens has advice for his fellow sailors returning home. For those who are single, he advises them to avoid isolation, and surround themselves with loved ones. For those with families of their own, the message is simple:

“Cherish it, enjoy it,” OS Stephens said. “It’s a special moment for the military.”

The USS Philippine Sea is expected to arrive at 9:15 Wednesday morning.