NORFOLK (NNS) -- The guided-missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf (CG 55) returned to Naval Station Norfolk today following a six-month deployment in the U.S. Fleet Forces and 6th Fleet Areas of Operations.
Leyte Gulf deployed June 25, 2014 to the Mediterranean Sea, where the ship assumed duties as Standing NATO Maritime Group (SNMG) 2 flagship July 8, in Malaga, Spain.
Under Rear Adm. Brad Williamson, her crew conducted a variety of operations and exercises alongside multinational allies, sailing extensively with the German frigate FGS Niedersachsen (F 208), Turkish frigate TCG Kemalreis (F 247) and Canadian frigate HMCS Toronto (DDH 337).
Sailing 35,000 miles, four times across the Atlantic Ocean and eight times through the Strait of Gibraltar, Leyte Gulf took part in a Canadian Task Group Exercise (TGEX), a U.S. Fleet Exercise (FLEETEX); the Star Spangled Spectacular in Baltimore, Md.; a U.S. Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit Exercise (ARGMEUEX); a Spanish exercise and a Turkish exercise.
Additionally, the ship conducted maritime security operations in support of Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean Sea. Upon completion of their mission, changing requirements afforded Leyte Gulf the opportunity to return to her homeport roughly a month ahead of schedule, after being relieved by USS Vicksburg (CG 69) as SNMG2 flagship.
More than just operational integration with NATO allies, the deployment allowed Sailors to learn much about the world beyond American shores. Visiting 15 ports in six countries, Sailors volunteered more than 1,400 hours in 18 community relations, or COMREL, events for local charities and organizations.
At sea, 13 "cross pollination" events sent 70 Sailors to Leyte Gulf's SNMG 2 counterparts, forging friendships with Allied navies and experiencing a slice of life aboard other platforms.
Sailors made time for some individual accomplishments as well this deployment, with 34 advancing to the next pay grade and 11 striking into a rating.
Leyte Gulf also pinned seven new Surface Warfare Officers (SWO) and 69 new Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialists (ESWS).
For one of these new surface warriors, 19-year-old Seaman Apprentice Chris Gonzalez, earning his pin was one of a handful of accomplishments, but he said working with the ship's air department was a dream come true.
"My favorite part of being underway was flight quarters, being a 'chock-and-chain' man," said Gonzalez, who helped embarked Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 48 fly 450 hours during this deployment. "As a nineteen-year-old, going under a helicopter doing chocks and chains was really exciting for me, and doing clear-deck landings was probably the best thing I've ever done in my life."
A native of Oxnard, California, Gonzalez reported to the ship a month before deployment and didn't know what to expect.
He said all the port visits definitely made his first deployment better than what he'd heard in boot camp and apprenticeship school. Of the 15 times his feet touched dry land, he enjoyed being in Spain more than anywhere else.
"I speak Spanish so I liked being able to speak to people from another country," said Gonzalez. "My favorite port was Malaga. That was something I'll remember forever."
Gonzalez said his next goal is to strike into a new rating and continue his Navy career.
"Our ship and Sailors have accomplished so much, it's staggering," said Commanding Officer Capt. Dean Rawls. "Accommodating an admiral and his staff and rising to the challenges of the NATO mission showed how well-trained and proficient they are, and on top of that, they performed exceptionally well time and again on liberty in the many countries we visited.
"That's really just scratching the surface when you think about all the watch- standing and warfare qualifications, the advancements and reenlistments, and the five Sailors who welcomed new members to the Leyte Gulf family when they met their new babies for the first time."
From new dads meeting bright-eyed babies to young, junior Sailors greeting proud parents, Leyte Gulf Sailors look forward to enjoying some quality time with their families this month while preparing for the ship's maintenance phase this summer.
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