Family, friends greet USS Hartford crew members at Groton homecoming

Groton — The crowd toed the very edge of the shore, faces into a cold wind, and tried to glimpse a familiar face under the white caps walking across the USS Hartford. 

The crew waited as ropes were tied and trash was hauled ashore, while the crowd waited for the gate to open.

"The six months is hard, but this is the worst part since they're so close," Kirsti Hall said.

It was her second time at the homecoming of her husband, Joshua Hall, and his ship.

Kathalina Fontenot and her three children had plans to celebrate all three of the children's birthdays that their father, David Fontenot, missed on deployment.

"Does Daddy have to swim out here?" asked 8-year-old Kobryn Fontenot, as he waited anxiously with his siblings.

Fontenot said the long deployment wasn't easy, but she was thankful for the family readiness group that offered aid while David was gone.

"This boat has an amazing support system," Fontenot said. "For me, I have no family here ... they have basically been the people who have kept us going."

The Hartford had been gone for several months, traveling 46,000 miles, executing its mission supporting national and maritime security interests in the European Command Areas of Responsibility before returning to the Groton base.

Cmdr. Thomas Aydt said while the crew didn't have a lot of deployment experience going into their mission, they performed admirably.

"These guys are better than any of the other guys I've ever worked with ... they're very eager to learn and eager to face each new challenge," Aydt said.

They were also grateful to be home for the holidays, especially for the 14 crew members finishing their first deployment.

Santa walked back and forth across the bow of the submarine waving and greeting the crowd.

Jaleesa Reed flew from Maryland with Rose Neal, her boyfriend Marcus Robinson's mother, to meet Robinson Friday on the shore in Groton.

For Reed, this was a prolonged separation — her first deployment on a humanitarian mission with the USS Comfort began in April and overlapped with Robinson's deployment on the Hartford, which she said began in June.

"It helped me keep my mind off of being away from him," Reed said about her first deployment. "(But) since I returned, I've been going to work and thinking about it more often, so I'm just very happy that this day has finally come."   

Some in the crowd, like Rachel Green of New London, had plans to surprise their significant others as they returned from a long overseas deployment.

Green found out she was pregnant after the last port call for her husband, Matthew, in Scotland. She said she knew she had to wait until he returned home to break the news, telling only her parents and the ombudsman.

She had a sign announcing the news that she planned to hold up for her friend's camera as they greeted each other, waiting until after to announce their child. But as he walked down the pier, plans fell apart.

"Did you see the sign?" she yelled to him as they embraced.

"It feels great," Matthew said after a few minutes. "I'm speechless. It's a great homecoming gift."

The other celebrations of the day included the traditional "firsts" such as the first kiss, between Ensign Morgan Oblinsky and Katie Oblinsky, and the first hug, between Gregory Storer and his daughter Mary Storer, who had held a sign on shore reading "All I want for Christmas is my Daddy."

For Hap Storer, father of Gregory, who had been at his previous homecoming on the USS Dallas, the crowd reminded him of all of the work that families and sailors put in to support each other.

"It's being around all the Navy people," Storer said.

"I continue to be so impressed by the sailors and the families, what they commit to, (that) all of these women and kids here have."

n.lynch@theday.com

Twitter: @_nathanlynch

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