Home Deployment Final carrier operations for Marine F/A-18Cs, ‘Death Rattlers’ squadron returns from USS...

Final carrier operations for Marine F/A-18Cs, ‘Death Rattlers’ squadron returns from USS Nimitz deployment

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Andrew Dyer

The San Diego Union-Tribune

A San Diego-based Marine F/A-18C squadron flew off the aircraft carrier Nimitz and back to eager family and loved ones at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar on Thursday, after a 9-month deployment to the Middle East and Africa.

The squadron — the “Death Rattlers” of VMFA-323 — left San Diego May 6. While on deployment, the Nimitz supported operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and also provided air support as the U.S. repositioned its forces in Somalia. Due partly to complications from COVID-19, carrier deployments have been extended by a month or more than usual recently.

The squadron’s homecoming is the first of several that will take place over the coming days. The bulk of the squadron’s troops — its maintainers, administrators and logistics personnel — are still on the ship and won’t disembark until it pulls into San Diego. The Nimitz itself is based at Naval Base Kitsap in Washington, and its crew will have to wait a bit longer for their homecoming.

Other San Diego-based ships that deployed alongside Nimitz include the guided-missile destroyer Sterett and the guided-missile cruiser Princeton. Naval Air Station North Island Navy helicopter squadrons HSC-6 and HSM-73 also deployed with the Nimitz’ carrier air group.

Nimitz began its deployment in the midst of a raging coronavirus outbreak on another West Coast carrier — the San Diego-based Theodore Roosevelt — and the Navy took extra precautions with the crew.

In early April, members of the ship’s crew in Washington began pre-deployment quarantines. The ship left Washington April 27.

The unusual nature of the deployment was not lost on Defense department leadership as the Navy’s top officer, Adm. Mike Gilday, and the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin III, each visited the vessel on subsequent days.

Gilday, the chief of naval operations, visited sailors on board Nimitz Wednesday. During a phone call with reporters that evening, Gilday said he recognized the challenge of the longer time away from home for sailors. During the pandemic, sailors undergo at least two weeks of restriction of movement, or “ROM,” in which they are sequestered away from their families.

“The real key to eliminating the ROM (restriction of movement) period is getting ships 100 percent vaccinated,” Gilday said. “It will allow us to manage risk with a lot more certainty.”

Gilday also visited other San Diego units, including the guided-missile destroyer Michael Monsoor and I Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton.

Austin visited Nimitz Thursday and met with members of the crew. Austin also visited the landing helicopter dock Essex at Naval Base San Diego Thursday to observe sailors receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

Elle Hempen, whose husband, Maj. Jake Hempen, is a pilot with VMFA-323, said the deployment was made more difficult not just because of the pandemic, but also because they had just had a baby — James — when he deployed.

“He was four months old when he left,” Elle Hempen said. “He’s excited, but, you know, he doesn’t really know what he’s walking into.”

Lt. Col Anthony Koehl — call sign “NASA” — was greeted by his family and another new family member, an 11-month old puppy named Apollo. The dog was a complete surprise, he said.

“I had no idea,” Koehl said.

The homecoming marks the end of an era for Marine aviation as the F/A-18C Hornets from VMFA-323 are the last of their type to deploy on an aircraft carrier. Navy pilots flying a newer jet, the so-called Super Hornet, still make up the carriers’ primary air wings. Other Marine Hornet squadrons are modernizing to the new carrier-based F-35C Joint Strike Fighter.

For Lt. Col William Mitchell, the commanding officer of the squadron, flying off the Nimitz for the last time was “bittersweet.” He said he’s only flown Hornets in the Marines.

“It’s my pride and joy,” Mitchell said. “I was the last aircraft off the deck today and my entire maintenance department, all my Marines, were lined up along the foul line and rendering a salute as I got shot down (catapult) 3 one more time. That was one of the more emotional moments. Knowing it’s the end of an era is certainly bittersweet.”

Mitchell said the squadron will continue flying the Hornets out of Miramar for the immediate future. By 2028, however, the squadron will be updated to the short-takeoff, vertical-landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B, he said.

U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. William J. Mitchell, commanding officer of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 323, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, takes off from Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., in an F/A-18C Hornet, May 8, 2020. The squadron, commonly referred to as the “Death Rattlers” are headed to the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) for the final F/A-18C deployment in 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing’s history. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Samuel Ruiz)

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