Today’s Our Land Series post was authored by a fairly new blog friend, Pattie, of Bitter Ex-Nuke Wife. She writes about life, family, and being married to her husband who so often was far from home, serving the US NAVY on a submarine. Many of you know that my husband Robert was in the US ARMY for 20 years. I didn’t meet him until he was a couple of months into retirement, so I cannot say that I know firsthand what it’s like to live and raise a family while half of the parenting equation is deployed for months and months at a time.
Pattie’s stories fascinate me. I hope that you’ll enjoy this unique addition to this series and also gain a new perspective on another of life’s situations. I think there’s empathy, awareness, and wonder to be had for everybody’s experiences. I am honored to share Pattie’s story on surviving deployment, pride, sacrifice, and ultimately finding community.
Our Land: Survival
We were engaged before he left for boot camp and it would be two years before we could schedule a wedding into the plans that the Navy had for his life. He left for boot camp in January of 1980 and he didn’t stop leaving until January 2000 when he finally left the Navy.
When my husband was going through his final check-out the yeoman detailing his service record had only these words; “Jesus Christ, Chief! Fourteen years of sea duty?!”
These numbers are staggering, and looking back feels like that there is a huge gaping wound of nothingness that is 20 years deep and wide.
How do you survive the months and months of separation? And “surviving” is the only word for the situation. You can manage the loneliness, you can deal with it, and you can tolerate it, but at the end of the deployment, the only word that truly defines what you went through is “survive.”
How did I survive all the deployments? Quite honestly there were times that I was ready to pack my clothes and just leave everything right where it was until the boat came back. But I didn’t know where I would go, and after our daughter was born, the options dwindled. Family was never an option. My high school friends were busy with their own lives; plus they lived on the other side of the country. I never did actually pack my things and leave. Instead, I made friends with sister wives, and over time, we cultivated friendships that have stood the test of thirty years.
The loneliness that is in your home when your loved one is gone for three, five, even six or more months at a time is the kind of dull ache that gnaws at your heart and takes a slice from your soul with every passing day.
It is a quiet so quiet that even with a TV set on in the background you don’t hear the noise for wanting so badly to hear the familiar footsteps and voice at the end of the day. It is the strangling despair that your heart will break into a million scattered pieces if you have to suffer one more day alone.
In our home, the weeks leading up to a deployment were filled with forced smiles, feigned happiness, and many bitten tongues. It was practically taboo to fight about anything in those precious few weeks. As the departure date drew closer, the work days grew progressively longer until it would have been easier if he had just left. It was like tempering the impending impact of realization that he was leaving for a long time, so that when it hit you, at least you weren’t driven to your knees in one fell swoop.
There was no such thing as the internet which meant that we did not have cell phones, Skype or Facebook. We had Ma Bell, and telephone operators who placed transatlantic phone calls for us. We had the US Postal Service.
So how did we survive? One way was to embrace our independence from the incessant demands of the boat schedule. We could come and go as we pleased, answering only to a schedule that we set. We could eat cereal for every meal if we wanted. Once the boat left we could go to the bathroom in the middle of the night never worrying that the toilet seat was down. It was always down. We slept in late on Saturday AND Sunday because there was no damned duty day to wake up for.
We were proud too. We were submariner wives. Our husbands deployed for longer times, they deployed more often, and the Navy gave the submarine fleet significantly fewer considerations than the surface fleet. We knew that our husbands were the elite sailors and we were proud of the roles they played in keeping the Silent Service safe and operational. We didn’t wear their rank or rate but we were well aware that when we said “my husband is on a submarine,” people were impressed. Pride was a survival tool.
But most important to our survival were the friendships that we found in our sister wives. We had empathy for each other. Sympathy would kill what was left of a broken spirit where empathy would bolster a sagging confidence and reignite a waning energy to face the next day, week, or month. We encouraged each other with spirited talks (Happy Hours at someone’s home), movie nights and family time with our kids in tow.
We made the time to be available for each other if only to take a sister wive’s kids for a few hours so she could write a long letter for the next mail drop. We went out as a group so no one was ever alone or in a precarious situation. We had each other’s backs.
We had to band together. We didn’t know when the boat was going to be home. We would be told a time frame but anything could change the schedule. Anything. CNN had just come on the scene and we were all on the 24 hour schedule. When things went to Hell in Yugoslavia, the boat was delayed coming home. When the Russians got uppity with a new war toy and President Reagan called their bluff, the boat would be left at sea to cover that bet.
Our husbands were on the front line of the military defenses during the Cold War. To quote the Russian submarine captain Marko Ramius in The Hunt for Red October “I miss the peace of fishing like when I was a boy. Forty years I’ve been at sea. A war at sea. A war with no battles, no monuments…only casualties. I widowed her the day I married her. My wife died while I was at sea, you know.”
People died in the Cold War. You just didn’t hear about it. Family and loved ones died in the Cold War and the sailors didn’t hear about it until it was too late to attend the services. We wives attended to the family the best that we could until the boat came home. If the submarine was on a mission it stayed at sea until the situation had passed.
Marriages died and families were torn apart in the Cold War and the sailor wouldn’t know about it until the submarine came home and no one was waiting on the pier. But you probably never knew about any of this. When this kind of tragedy happened, it was brutal for the sailor and his broken family. Marriages that failed often had underlying problems that the stress of a deployment would magnify. But sometimes it was just the gut wrenching loneliness that just could not be handled that ended a marriage.
But marriages and families survived because we stood together; we band of submarine wives; we empathetic women who understood how to share that burden of loneliness and look after each other, so that our families could survive.
Pattie shares her experiences of being a nuke submariner’s wife and mom at Bitter Ex-Nuke Wife. “It wasn’t just big hair and shoulder pads in the 80’s and 90’s. In between popped collars and MTV we won the Cold War.” Now she and her husband enjoy civilian life in the Mid-Atlantic where there are no duty days or deployments. Find Pattie on Pinterest, Twitter, and Google+.