As the HMCS Toronto pulled into its homeport at the Halifax Dockyard, there was one sailor onboard eager to touch land.
Justin Steele was the first sailor off the ship and the traditional first kiss was reserved for his newborn son Tommy who he got to hold — for the first time.
“I had butterflies in my belly coming in and when I held him for the first time I could feel the tears breaking through,” said Steele who was met at the Halifax Navy base by his wife Ashley and their daughter Theresa.
His son Thomas, or Tommy as he’s more affectionately known, was born Dec. 12 while Steele and the other 235 officers, sailors and aviators onboard the HMCS Toronto were in the Mediterranean Sea, sailing along with other NATO-allied countries.
It was part of Operation Reassurance, a NATO mission that was cut short by a few weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That didn’t seem to phase any of the sailors as they were all happy to be home for the holidays after 191 days at sea.
“I just couldn’t be happier,” said Steele. “I don’t think you can get this smile off my face.”
The pandemic brought new challenges at sea and aboard the ship, which was unable to dock as it would normally and allow crew members to visit some of the port cities.
The Canadian Navy and the Atlantic fleet were still grieving the loss of the six members who died in the tragic cyclone helicopter crash off of the HMCS Fredericton in April.
“Midway through the deployment and to the end we had a social worker on board, complementing the medical team and the medical staff that we had, to do some intervention with crew members that were struggling,” said Cmdr. Jeff Dargavel, commanding officer of the HMCS Toronto.
“We worked closely and hard at that to make sure all the supports were there,” Dargavel said.
As the ship arrived in its homeport, a Naval band played a Christmas carol, fitting for a crew eager to reunite with friends and family.
“I can’t wait to open some presents with my family,” said Sailor Shawn Cormier. “It’s going to be good. I’m really glad to be home for Christmas. I wasn’t expecting it and it’s the best Christmas present I could have.”
This was the first deployment for sailor Shawney McGregor who was met by her mother and grandmother with open arms.
“When I left Halifax six-and-a-half months ago I didn’t think I’d be home for Christmas,” said McGregor. “So even just being here is surreal and I am still just trying to put the proper words together.”
The HMCS Halifax will take over the mission from here and continue Operation Reassurance in the new year. That ship is set to sail for the Mediterranean Sea on Jan. 1.