There are so many perspectives on what it is like to be married to a submariner, different from your standard Navy spouse, and different still between boomer and fast-attack life. I have had the distinct pleasure of experiencing both lifestyles, and one is definitely more challenging than the other. My perspective has shifted during our 20-year Navy career. Yes, I said “our” because Navy life is very much a shared experience. As a Navy family, we live by one universal rule – Navy First – which means that we endure many disappointments, anger, and loneliness. It doesn’t mean that I, as the Navy spouse, must put the Navy first, but quite the opposite. It’s my responsibility to put the family first. It is for me to understand that it has been drilled and ingrained in my Sailor to put the Navy first, and if we want things to work, I must accept this. If you don’t learn to accept and deal with this steadfast rule, you are only setting yourself, your family, and your marriage up for failure.
I am grateful that Justin and I have grown in the Navy together. This time has taught us many valuable lessons about being a Navy family. When we started our family journey Justin was a young second class. In the early years in the Navy before Justin had acquired the responsibilities that come with rank, life was simple. Yes, he had some long days, and deployment was a pain, but time away from work and family time was easier. Navy first was still a rule, but there was less he was responsible for, so it wasn’t as hard to live by. We were also still on a boomer, which meant two crews to manage the boat, more time off, less deployment time, etc. Life on a boomer is easier. It’s easier to go with the flow when the time your Sailor is away is in shorter chunks. Two to three months out vs. six months out is more manageable to the psyche. There is less time for significant change and personal distance to form. Even when he made 1st class and was LPO (in civilian terms, this is basically like an assistant manager), our Navy first rule was still manageable because we were on shore duty.
We were spoiled on shore duty. Strike that, we were spoiled on the boomer, and when we went to shore duty, we got complacent. We took leave whenever, celebrated all the birthdays, holidays, and had almost every weekend. Life was so good, and we didn’t even realize it. We took it for granted. Justin made Chief at the end of his shore duty, but before that he was looking for his next duty station and we thought we were moving back to Washington. So, that summer I packed up our house and kids and moved from Connecticut to Washington. We decided that it would be better for me to go with the kids to get settled and put them in school, plus my family lived in Washington, and we were going to rent a house from my grandparents. This meant that Justin was alone to get our house ready to sell and get all of our stuff moved back to Washington. I had no idea what that meant for him, and if I did, I would have never left.
And, as luck would have it, he ended up being selected for Chief, which is a whole other world of late nights and training that we were not expecting. I didn’t think it would be anything we couldn’t handle. We had done deployments (on a boomer). How hard could being apart be (after a 2-year shore duty)? I would just like to point out that this was a real blonde moment on my part. Also, we ended up learning another hard lesson: wait for hard orders before you do anything. This might seem like a “well duh,” statement, but we were young, and I was excited to move home, close to friends and family. We ended up having to drive back to Connecticut. Thankfully, my grandparents, having been familiar with military life and very proud of my husband, supported us every step of the way and never once gave us the “I told you so” conversation.
This wasn’t our first road bump with Justin’s new rank. He took orders to the Missouri Submarine as the FT Chief. Little did we know this would be our home for the next seven years. Yes, you read that right, SEVEN! How did we manage that? Yeah, we get that a lot. First, Justin took extended orders so our oldest daughter, Ashlyn, would graduate before our next transfer date. Then, he extended again so that we all could move to Hawaii together. After we made it to Hawaii, he reenlisted to give Ashlyn his GI bill for college. Soon after that, when we were getting ready for much-needed shore duty, Covid-19 hit the world, and we got stuck on the boat for some more time—totaling seven long years, 4 different commanding officers, 6 XOs, 4 COBs, and never-ending cycling of the crew.
Being on the Missouri for so long earned Justin the title of Ship’s Historian, fitting because he knew that boat inside and out. I also got to see the changes from an outside perspective. When we got to the Missouri, she had just come off a deployment and was being sent back out on a surge. This crew and their families were as tight-knit as any I had ever seen. I thought I knew a thing or two about deployment and Navy life. Whiplash. Being on a fast attack is so different. From the workload on the Sailor, the boat schedule, to the mental toughness of the families, it is a whole new ball game. Luckily we were thrown into our first deployment. Justin got a call to come off transfer leave, and the very next week, he was out to sea, and I was moving us into our new house. He was now a Missouri Chief, and I the spouse of a Chief. I took the role with enthusiasm. I wanted to be in the Missouri family. I liked the feeling of community and jumped in with both feet. I had no idea what being a Chief spouse meant, but I had some fantastic teachers.
I learned how to be a Chief spouse from Laura Voland. I didn’t know her well. I had met Laura a few times before her husband transferred, and my brief interactions with her were pleasant. She was kind and friendly with a warm and welcoming demeanor. Though I didn’t know her well, it was easy to see why she was loved and thought of affectionately by the women she had brought together.
When we first got to the Missouri, I was the only spouse in Justin’s division. I had no friends, and my first experience with the FRG was not bad, kind of like being the new kid coming into a new school in the middle of the year. I quickly found my people though. The Sonar spouses welcomed me into their group. By the time I had found myself embraced by the group, Laura Voland had moved on to another command, but her presence was still felt. The spouses she left behind still reminisced fondly of her, and the community she had fostered among them was beautiful. She was my example of how to be a Chief spouse. I chose to follow in her footsteps as best I could.
I wanted to foster the same feelings of belonging and community amongst the FT spouses, but there weren’t many. It was one other spouse and me. It would take me another deployment and a few new guys to practice the lessons I had learned about being an excellent Chief spouse.
The first lesson I learned was to be involved. As a Chief, your spouse is now responsible for a division. I was responsible for getting to know the families and spouses of the Sailors that Justin was responsible for. If the Sailors can go out to sea knowing that their family members have support at home, it helps them to be able to entirely focus on their jobs and spend less time worrying about home life. I was lucky in the fact that Justin’s division was small. At any given time, there were never more than 3 or 4 wives and families for me to look out for, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. I still had to put in the time and effort to get to know the spouses and their families, build the connection, and nurture relationships so that they felt supported and comfortable. They needed to feel like they could come to talk to me, ask for help, and have a resource to go to when they needed it. We started with division gatherings. Usually family-friendly dinners on the weekends, potlucks/BBQs were a favorite. We would eat and get to know each other. Sometimes Justin would take the division out for dinner or hail and farewell, and I would invite the spouses over for a wine night. This way, I got to have some one-on-one interaction and get to know them better. Not all spouses will participate, but most will with a bit of encouragement from their Sailor.
Getting to know the spouses was also beneficial to the command and the boat’s Family Readiness Group (FRG). As a Chief spouse, I wanted to make sure that the families of Justin’s Sailors were supported and had every resource available to them for their mental health and wellbeing during deployments. A good FRG, is an excellent resource.
Getting the families together to form a community is vital during deployment. Deployment is already challenging, and the loss one feels when their other half leaves is significant. Knowing that you’re not alone in your emotional struggle helps ease the grieving process. Connecting with others who are in the same boat is the best way to get through. If you have good FRG leadership and a good Command Support Team (CO spouse, XO spouse, COB spouse), they know the importance of the FRG and will work their butts off to meet the group’s needs. Being on the Missouri, I have been a member of seven FRG turnovers and been on the board two times.
My first experience with the Missouri FRG was when the CO spouse was Natasha Luckett and the XO spouse Karla Todd. These ladies were good at being outstanding members and advisors to the FRG. They were real cheerleaders, rallying the officer spouses and getting them involved brought the group together as a whole without rank divisions. They were excellent at bringing everyone together and fostering feelings of community. Which is so valuable and much needed during deployments.
It’s debatable which is harder to endure – the workup to deployment or the deployment itself. You will only understand this if you are a Navy spouse. You see, on one hand during the workup, yes your Sailor is home most nights, with duty and more than a few underways here and there, but you can not plan anything. The boat’s schedule is packed and more than likely your Sailor is working long days and weekends too. They are constantly in and out, training, testing, training some more. And it’s frustrating to try and be a family during this time. You want to spend as much time together as possible before deployment, but are unable to really plan anything as the schedule and training shifts around every day. So, instead, this is when we prepared the kids emotionally, managed our own emotions and expectations, organized snacks, keepsakes, and little reminders of home to send out with our Sailors. We are shopping for underwear, socks, and whatever else our Sailors need for their trip. We are mentally preparing ourselves for the loss of our partners again. Planning for murphy’s unexpected surprises. Trying to ready ourselves and steel our nerves for life as a single parent. Tensions run high, little squabbles happen, and then, the inevitable wall you put up from your partner. It happens, there is no avoiding it, it is your mind’s way of preparing for the loss it knows is coming. It’s the first part of the emotional stages of deployment, the anticipation of loss, followed by detachment and withdrawal. You’re going through all this while your Sailor is going through a tough and grueling workload getting ready for deployment. I often thought deployment was easier. I think the worst is when you have gone through all of this and you are finally in the calm before the storm. A couple of days before deployment, when your Sailor gets a very small window of time to take care of non-Navy business before they leave. This is when you get a minute to emotionally prepare your relationship for what comes next. The departure date is set and you both know what’s coming. Wait! Navy throws a curveball, something on the boat broke or whatever, now the schedule has shifted. On the one hand, your heart is like, “yes! We scored more time”, but your brain is like, “OMG! You’re killing me! I have to start over!”. It’s tough because you want to welcome the gift of having a little more time, but you also just want to get the hard part over with. This is a test of your flexibility.
As a Navy spouse, I flex this muscle A LOT! Being flexible is the cornerstone of any military relationship. The ability to roll with the punches and come out unscathed is a talent and something that is acquired over time. And if you’re a type-A control freak, like me, this is a hard skill to master. There is so much that is out of your hands and you just have to learn to be really really good at pivoting and managing your disappointments. So you learn to plan, but also plan a backup, and a backup for your backup. This means refundable tickets, keeping things to yourself, never getting too excited for a specific date, and always expecting the shift to happen.
Life during deployment is always peppered with murphy’s law. I was prepared, or so I thought. There is always the one thing that I missed or didn’t think of. I thought I was so clever, keeping emergency binders on hand with all important paperwork readily available. I was, but when murphy is pounding on the door, it is hard enough to manage, not because you haven’t done it before, but because your emotions take over and everything seems like a big deal.
Preparing and organizing for disasters beforehand did make life a little easier. It always seemed to be the things I knew the least about were the things murphy would smack me in the face with. Like waking up to find the car has a flat and I have to get the kids to school. Thank god for triple-A and the neighbors that have kids that my kids could carpool with. My favorite was waking up to a fresh new foot of snow, just kidding. I hated having to shovel the driveway at 7 am to take the kids to school. At least I knew exactly where the snow shovels and road salt were in the garage because I placed them there. It’s the little things that make it so much easier. Deployment is lonely and hard. I tried to set myself up the best I could to manage the hard parts,and most of the time it helped to dim the giant spotlight highlighting the fact that I was doing it all by myself.
The loneliness of deployment can be crippling. When you finally get the opportunity to connect with your spouse after weeks or even months into the deployment can sometimes feel even worse. It was hard for me to understand that his ability to get off the tin can he has called home for weeks was greater than his need to connect with me. I had to repeat in my mind, no sunlight, same faces day in day out, the monotony of the days blending together. To keep me from being angry with him, to keep my thoughts from spiraling out of control. I was heartbroken that he didn’t miss me as much as I missed him. I knew that this wasn’t true but I also couldn’t see past my own loneliness and need to connect with him, to feel connected to him. He needed to get off the damn boat. To stretch his legs and feel the land beneath his feet and sun on his skin, breathe air that hadn’t been recycled. It wasn’t that he didn’t miss me, it was that he had been caged too long. I knew this, my rational mind understood this, but my heart didn’t accept it. I was resentful. He would tell me about all his adventures that he was having without me in places that I wanted to go explore too and I was jealous. Here I was stuck at home taking care of all the day-to-day, managing our lives, and struggling. All the while he is on vacation. Of course, I knew none of this was true. This was my little green monster born out of all my hurt and loneliness that I had buried deep down and kept hidden. These are the irrational thoughts of a Navy spouse that was enduring the long harsh Connecticut winter alone and away from family. Who spent Christmas alone. In short, I felt sorry for myself and had some serious FOMO.
The reality was that I had a great support system and I had spent Christmas with warm and lovely spouses that were all struggling with the same feelings I was. We were all sharing the same FOMO, the same disconnect. It was in this that I knew it was ok to feel how I felt, I was normal. You have to have a support system, and family is great, but you need someone who has stood in your shoes or is going through it too. No spouse or Navy marriage will survive without a support system. Make friends with other spouses on your boat. Don’t know anyone? Go to an FRG meeting and find your people. I know it can be super intimidating and uncomfortable to be the new kid, but it is worth it. It is worth finding someone to connect with. You’ll both be able to lean on each other through deployment. It’s even better if you can get in with an incredible group of spouses. If it weren’t for the friends and support I had during deployment I would have fallen apart. Hell, I did fall apart. I wouldn’t have made it if these ladies didn’t pick me up and glue me back together continuously throughout the deployment. There is no way to do this alone and those who try, fail. The mental toughness a military spouse has is only as strong as the community she builds to support her. I truly believe this.
We made it through three deployments, a homeport change, and a shipyard period while we were on the Missouri. Now we get to breathe on shore duty for a while. Then we are retiring! That’s it! We are ending our TWENTY years in the Navy. For a long while leading up to this point, Justin was very apprehensive about what comes next. What were we going to do? I was apprehensive, though, not about the same things. I spent the last 15 years raising kids and living the Navy life. With kids getting ready to leave for college and Justin getting out of the Navy, what was I going to do? I would be losing everything in one fell swoop. I am going to say something very strange, so just bear with me:
Covid-19 saved our retirement.
I told you it was strange. I am not grateful for covid per se, but for the perspective it forced us to take. Instead of figuring out what job(s) we were going to pursue next, we got to step back and evaluate what we wanted for our retired life. This submarine spouse’s journey has just begun!