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Submarine homecoming in the time of COVID-19

After six months apart, Wendy Wu had to drive from Chicago to Connecticut and quarantine for two weeks in Hartford before she could see her husband, Leslie Liang, again.

When the Groton-based attack submarine USS Indiana left for its maiden deployment in March, it was early in the coronavirus pandemic in Connecticut. Businesses still were open and mask-wearing was not yet the norm.

Since then, the pandemic has upended daily lives and Friday's homecoming at the Naval Submarine Base was no different.

Typically, hundreds of people wait along the waterfront to watch the submarine pull in and rush the pier when their loved ones start making their way off the boat.

This time they waited, wearing masks in their cars in assigned spots, for the sailors, who were given a diagram in advance of where their loved ones would be parked, to come to them.

When they arrived, they had their temperature taken and were given a health questionnaire. Many have spent the past two weeks quarantining in Connecticut, as required by the state.

Submarines are naturally isolated from the outside world — but the pandemic exacerbated that.

"A lot of times when a submarine deploys, they are kind of in the blind with some of those news and events from back home. We give them snippets, but we don't give them a lot of details, and so, they are going to be shocked when they come home. They are going to be exposed to a lot of things that are completely different," said the base's Command Master Chief Joshua Sturgill, who coordinated the logistics of Friday's event.

Many of the sailors were curious about how the pandemic was impacting life back home for their loved ones.

Destiny Davis recalled one such interaction with her fiancé, Brandon Pyland. "He asked what are the strangest things that are happening. I was like, 'Oh, well, there's no toilet paper. There's no cleaning supplies,'" she said.

The Indiana pulled into port twice while deployed in the European theater in support of national security interests and maritime security operations, both times to Rota, Spain, but the crew's movements were heavily restricted to ensure they stayed in "a COVID-safe bubble," Sturgill said.

The first time they were only allowed access to the pier where the submarine was tied up. The second time, they were allowed a bit more freedom and were able to move about a bit on the naval base in Rota, such as going to the beach or playing some football.

"We missed out on the opportunity to see some other cultures," said Cmdr. Dave Grogan, Indiana's commanding officer. "I know a lot of the guys are very interested now in getting out on another deployment and actually getting that added experience to it."


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