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SAN DIEGO — Thousands of sailors and Marines on the USS Nimitz and in the rest of its carrier group stopped in San Diego Friday after a nearly 11-month deployment.

The Nimitz was the first aircraft carrier deployed after the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The crew of the strike group were deployed for 321 days, compared to a more typical six-month deployment.

After the lengthy stint at sea, military officials say the group was stopping in San Diego to disembark crew members of Carrier Air Wing 17 before finally heading on to its homeport of Naval Base Kitsap-Bremerton in Washington state.

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On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III flew out to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz off the coast of San Diego to thank the crew for their months at sea.

“I just couldn’t be more proud of the women and men of USS Nimitz for their hard work and dedication over the last ten months,” he wrote on Twitter. “What they have endured and accomplished is an example of the best the U.S. military has to offer. From all of us: Welcome Home.”

The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group operated in the Persian Gulf in support of Central Command during a tense time with Iran. It also participated in maritime exercise Malabar 2020 alongside Indian, Australian and Japanese ships. The carrier strike group participated in dual-carrier operations with the USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike groups as well as operating in the South China Sea.

The strike group had the longest deployment since the Vietnam War. It was lengthened by COVID-19 protocols that called for a quarantine before departing and the elimination of port calls during the deployment. The Navy aims for deployments to be roughly six months. The Nimitz group have been away from family and friends almost double that.

The Nimitz was on its way home from the Persian Gulf when events in the region necessitated its return.

“It’s hard to express in words the overwhelming sense of accomplishment and pride felt by all hands aboard Nimitz as this long deployment comes to a close,” said Capt. Max Clark, Nimitz’s commanding officer. “I am so very proud of this crew, and the grit and teamwork they demonstrated day in and day out to complete all missions assigned. They and their families have my deepest respect and gratitude.”

Overall, the carrier strike group traveled more than 87,300 nautical miles during its deployment. The carrier launched 10,185 sorties totaling 23,410 flight hours logged, the DOD announced.