A Military Family Reunites With Their Sailor After Deployment on the USS George H.W. Bush

By Danielle DeSimone

On a sunny day in April 2023, hundreds of military families waited at the dock of Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia, dressed in their best. Some were carrying signs, others balloons, as they lined up against the gate that divided them from the water’s edge. They had all already waited nearly nine months, so a few more hours wouldn’t make much of a difference – but after nearly a year apart from their loved ones, those extra hours can be especially nerve-wracking.

These military families were waiting for the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier to return to its homeport, after eight and a half months out at sea. And for one particular military family, the return of their family member was especially exciting.

Photo credit USO Photo

Vidalina Sommer’s family hold their “welcome home” signs while waiting for the arrival of the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier.

George Sommers and his mother, Veronica Ruiz, decorated a “welcome home” sign for George’s sister and Veronica’s daughter, Vidalina Sommers. Although both George and Veronica had their own personal connections to the military, this was still an exciting moment, as this was Vidalina’s first-ever deployment, and she was out to sea from August 2022 to late April 2023, serving aboard the USS George H.W. Bush.

While this nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was in the Mediterranean, the ship and its crew participated in multinational exercises with our NATO allies to develop our capabilities and deter aggression in a region that has become increasingly unstable since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Veronica is an Air Force brat herself and grew up in a military family at duty stations overseas. But now, as a mother, the time apart was difficult for her.

“I kind of knew what to expect, but [Vidalina] being my only daughter, it was a little bit harder,” she said.

Veronica explained that it’s been difficult any time one of her children deploys, including George, who is her oldest child and also a member of the U.S. Navy.

George was recently deployed on the USNS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship, traveling to South America, Central America and the Caribbean. The USNS Comfort was originally designed to handle mass casualty incidents during wartime, but this particular deployment in 2022 was a goodwill mission, focused on providing humanitarian assistance, building readiness in this region.

George explained that as the older brother with more experience in the military and what life on deployment is like, he was sure to give his sister some advice before she departed on the USS George H.W. Bush last August.

“I said ‘Experience everything and enjoy it, because you won’t get this opportunity again. Enjoy it all and just take it in,” he said.

George also knows that when he or his sister are in need of support, they can always turn to the USO. George has been turning to the organization since he first joined the Navy.

I’ve used the USO at the airport, traveling from bootcamp to a school in San Antonio, and I used it in Okinawa,” he said.

George visited the USO mostly while he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. There, he became a frequent visitor of USO Camp Schwab and USO Camp Hansen; so much so, in fact, that he actually became a USO Volunteer at USO Camp Schwab. That is, in between his military duties while stationed on Okinawa, George utilized his limited free time to give back to his fellow service members who came in to use the USO Center by volunteering and running the center.

Photo credit USO Photo

Vidalina’s brother, George, decorates his “welcome home” sign.

Veronica has also utilized the USO – but as a military parent.

“The USO helped me when [Vidalina] was leaving for her basic training,” she said.

Veronica explained that as Vidalina headed to basic training, she was running through the airport, but couldn’t find her daughter to say goodbye before she left. A USO staff member stepped up to quickly arranged for Veronica to get to her daughter’s departure gate, working with airport staff to allow Veronica to bypass the security line.

“And we found her,” Veronica said, the relief evident in her voice. “I was so blessed and thankful.”

When asked what is the hardest thing about deployment as a military family member waiting back home, Veronica’s answer was simple.

“It’s missing them,” Veronica said. “And just wanting to make sure they’re safe. But it’s also a very proud feeling.”

Eventually, after several long hours of waiting for the ship to come into view on the horizon, the USS George H.W. Bush returned home to Norfolk – and Veronica, George and Vidalina were reunited as a family once again.

How the USO Supports Sailors and Marines Deployed Out to Sea

The USO provides support to members of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps – as well as their families – regardless of whether they’re at their home port or on deployment.

For example, as Veronica and George were eagerly awaiting at the dock for the arrival of Vidalina at the USS George H.W. Bush’s homecoming, the USO was present as well, with our Mobile USO vehicles and an area for military families to create “welcome home” signs. But their family member Vidalina also received USO support while out at sea, aboard her deployed aircraft carrier.

In October 2022, the USO Europe Expeditionary Team visited the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush during a scheduled port visit to Souda Bay, Crete. The USO team, which travels to remote locations throughout the region, flew from Italy to join the carrier in Crete, providing a welcome presence to sailors who have been out to sea supporting U.S. Sixth Fleet. Throughout their time supporting the ship, the USO team delivered free meals to watchstanders during the port of call and added to the ship’s overall resiliency plan.

Photo credit DVIDS/Petty Officer 3rd Class Samuel Wagner

Sailors aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, pose for a photo with USO representatives during a scheduled port visit to Souda Bay, Crete, Oct. 8, 2022.

The USO also delivered a USO Entertainment Tour to the USS George H.W. Bush in its final weeks out at sea, flying out country music artist Blanco Brown out to the ship. Sailors got to enjoy a live concert, sing along and even line dance alongside the famous artist – a welcome change after months at sea.

“I just want to say thank you to the USO for serving us while we serve our country and for taking so much time and dedication to fly out here to boost our morale.” said Aviation Ordnanceman Airman Felicity Weir in October. “They make a bigger difference than they could ever know.”

This is why USO expeditionary support is crucial: by expanding the USO’s reach to service members who are serving in remote locations – such as on aircraft carriers – that are not close to a traditional, brick-and-mortar USO Center, the USO can help even those out to sea feel closer to home. Although something as simple as a free meal may seem small to some, for our sailors, it is the thought behind the action that helps keep their morale and spirits high.

And given the recent increase in suicides among U.S. Navy sailors aboard ships, this focus on mental health and morale is crucial to protecting the wellbeing of our nation’s service members.

And in fact, the USNS Comfort, which George was deployed on, gained notoriety somewhat recently in 2020, when the ship – staffed with military medical crew – docked in New York City at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic to provide support to the city’s struggling hospital system. And even in the midst of a global emergency, the USO was right along with them, providing support to military medical staff in everything from toiletry kits to comfort foods to gym equipment.

The USO has centers at many of the home ports of the Navy and Marine Corps – from California, to Italy, to Japan – providing programs and services for service members and military family members alike. We also, such as in Croatia and New York, deploy USO expeditionary teams to port visits.

And now, the USO will quite literally “go where they go” – with the opening of some of the first USO Centers aboard U.S. Navy ships.

On June 6, 2022, the USO officially opened the doors of its first-ever USO Ship-Based Center aboard the USS George H.W. Bush. This unstaffed center is a welcome change from the very grey and sterile environment of the rest of the ship – the room is full of comfortable couches, warm, wooden shelves stocked with books, top-of-the-line video gaming systems, snacks and more. Crucially, the center also hosts several phones that are capable of calling the U.S. – so that service members can reach out to loved ones back home, no matter where they are in the world.

Photo credit USO Photo

Thanks to the USO, sailors aboard the USS George H.W. Bush can now enjoy video and board games, TV and USO program kits while at sea.

Having spent several long months out at sea, sometimes all you want is to have a welcoming space to turn to that isn’t your barracks. This USO Center was created specifically to boost morale and keep spirits high among those deployed aboard the aircraft carrier – and hopefully, this is the first of many USO Centers aboard U.S. Navy ships.

After all, service members like George and his sister Vidalina need and deserve to feel connected to home and their families while they are out to sea, sacrificing so much on our behalf, until they can come home and be reunited with their mother once again.

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