Kyla Walker admits she's never been a fan of water.
Maybe that raises an eyebrow when the 23-year-old tells you she joined the Navy not long after graduating from Ashbrook High School in 2015.
But what really grabs you is when you hear that, during her first deployment, the Navy airman and other sailors aboard the USS Eisenhower aircraft carrier spent a record 206 straight days at sea.
That means no stops at a lovely Spanish port of call. No R&R along the Mediterranean or sipping Italian wine or viewing Greek architecture.
What it means is more than seven months of shoulder-to-shoulder contact with 5,000 others aboard a ship floating in waters just off the coast of war-torn countries and floating alone, quarantined, as a worldwide pandemic rages around you.
And it also means celebrating your 23rd birthday on April 4 on a warship, half a world away from family and friends.
Saturday afternoon, Walker was welcomed home with a drive-by procession featuring a parade of family and friends led by police officers and a balloon-clad city of Gastonia fire truck.
Walker said she really wasn't sure what was going on when her mother told her to come outside of their South York Street home, as it appeared “something was going on” up the street. She really became hesitant when a police officer pulled up and stopped in front of their home and got out of his cruiser.
“I was like, 'I just got here. I ain't did nothing.' But then he saluted. And then, I knew what it was,” Walker said.
Prior arriving back in Gastonia on Friday, Aug. 14, the last time Walker had been in her hometown was New Year's Day. She plans to be here until Wednesday, Aug. 19, when she returns to her home port in Norfolk, Virginia. Her leave is up Aug. 24
Food is at the top of her list right now. She and her mom, Tracy Adams, went to Twin Tops Fish Camp for fried fish and fried oysters on Friday night and she plans to get her favorite hot wing dinner from Chicken King. A family cookout was planned for Saturday with many of those who took part in the welcome home parade.
Walker's appreciative of the support, not only Saturday, but with all the care packages and letters she received at sea. It's hard being away from family, she said.
“Being out there seven months, your family and your friends, you necessarily don't have to push them away, but you have to find a way to cope with not being able to talk with them every day, not being able to see them every day.”
And, after that long at sea, it takes some getting used to being back around those you love.
“You have to understand, for the past seven months I've been in this routine that helped me get through. Now that I'm here… it's just going to take a lot of getting used to,” she said.
Even after seven months of sea, she said she is happy with her decision to join the Navy. She believes she's grown personally, acquiring more self-discipline and self-motivation.
“She used to be one of them kids, I'd say, 'A', she'd say 'B.' She's gotten more calmer. Coming off this deployment, she didn't say too much yesterday, but she told me later, 'It's been a lot of adjustments,'” she said.
Walker's grandmother, Mattie Adams, said her granddaughter has wanted to go into the military ever since she was in elementary school.
“She has done an awesome job. As a grandmother, I'm very, very proud of her because that's what she wanted to do,” Mattie Adams said.
After two years of study at North Carolina A&T, where her mother and sister graduated, Walker was restless and had decided college was not for her. She then spoke with her best friend, Shetonya Camp, who was considering going into the military.
“I honestly wasn't going to do the Navy because swimming wasn't for me. It wasn't for me,” Walker said. “The Air Force was my first choice.”
However, Camp talked her into the two of them joining the Navy together and Camp enlisted on Dec. 3, 2018. After boot camp, Walker was sent to “A school” in Pensacola, Fla., where she began studying to become an “AO”, military speak for an aviation ordnanceman. Basically, it means she provides maintenance on missiles, bomb racks, missile launchers and rocket-fired gun systems.
That was followed by several months at “C School” in San Diego. There she would learn more about such things as how to break down missile launchers.
Following that, in June 2019, she received her orders to report to Norfolk, Va., to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that was first commissioned in 1977 and currently serves as the flagship of Carrier Strike Group 10.
The Eisenhower was deployed on Jan. 17, 2020, beginning what would become a record seven straight months at sea. They would not return back to Norfolk until Aug. 9.
The ship blew away the USS Theodore Roosevelt's previous record of 160 consecutive days at sea without a port call. The extended period at sea was attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic and the ship's operational commitment to “remain clean” by avoiding any contact with ports that carried the potential of introducing the novel coronavirus into the crew.
“Corona wasn't even a thing when we pulled out,” she recalled. “I remembered reading a newspaper article in the mess deck (cafeteria) about a virus outbreak. Everybody was like, 'Oh snap.' Two months later, we turn on the news and the coronavirus has hit the United States.”
The sailors had little idea of how the virus would affect them. The ship basically became a bubble as Walker remembers that only one flight in was allowed and that was for a new admiral and access to him was heavily restricted.
“Our captain really took great precautions,” she said. “You could fly out, but there was no coming in. We had that bubble. Nobody was coming on board.”
The Eisenhower operated in the Arabian Sea, off the coast of Iran, for about five months as well as the Mediterranean Sea. There was a transit through the Suez Canal and the carrier even traveled below the equator.
Walker said the days followed a routine that included 12-hour work shifts. She worked nights. And even though it's a huge ship, measuring over 1,000-feet long, the sailors pretty much worked in the same area with the same people.
“Being out there for so long, you see the same people every day,” Walker said.
The monotony was broken up every 45 days with a “beer day,” Walker said. On that day, sailors were allowed to go out on the flight deck for what they called “a steel beach picnic.” Mind you, there was no sand, no umbrellas or fuzzy tropical drinks with fruit wedges.
“You get two beers, two lukewarm beers. You drink your two beers and that's it,” she said. But, according to Walker, those four “beer days” were so welcomed.
“Just to be able to have a day off. It's a consistent day-in and day-out grind,” she said. “We had to have those bomb racks constantly ready. It's work, work, work. So, when we have those beer days, it was just one of those little things we had to look forward to.”
As for her hesitation around the water, Walker said that hasn't changed.
During their deployment, there was a “swim challenge” held soon after the Eisenhower crossed the equator. The ship stopped moving and sailors were given the chance to jump off the side of the ship into the ocean. The plunge was 30 feet from the ship's aircraft elevator to the sea below.
And did she do it?
“Nah,” Walker said. “I know how to swim a little bit. But as far as jumping into the ocean, I wasn't comfortable doing that. I feel like I could have done it, but once I saw people jump and how long they was in the air before they hit, I know I would have panicked.”
©2020 Gaston Gazette, Gastonia, N.C.. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.