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Our Land: Survival

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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. 

We kept in touch using 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.

Silent Service

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.”

Sometimes, soldier

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.

Soldier Homecoming

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.

PattiePattie 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 PinterestTwitter, and Google+.


  • Anna Fitfunner - Patty: thanks for sharing your story. I’m not sure whether this will alter the bitterness that you mention in your blog, but I think that almost all Americans would join me in saluting the service offered by both your husband and you. I am, certainly, grateful for what you’ve done and in your debt. I hope that you find a time in the very near future when you won’t be bitter.September 24, 2014 – 1:59 amReplyCancel

  • Kerith Stull - It is difficult to imagine what a life without a husband is like, the life of a soldier’s wife. As I sit here grumpy about my husband long work days that include being away from home 12+ hours each day, I can put things in perspective. Thanks for sharing your story and reminding me of my blessings.

    And thank you to your husband for his service to our country so that my family could be safe.September 24, 2014 – 8:27 amReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Kerith,
      Thank you for reading and I will pass your appreciation on to my husband If we look around we will find the silver linings and at the end of my husband’s career we were able to find some blessings of our own.September 24, 2014 – 6:21 pmReplyCancel

    • Kristi Campbell - I am grumpy RIGHT NOW Kerith, because we’re in Denver, and my husband just told me he may need to fly home early. I’m all pouty because it’s our anniversary, the first time we’re meeting our niece, and my dad’s birthday… and really, if he were deployed? I’d be doing all of those things alone, anyway. I’m complaining about having to travel through an airport with my son alone. What choice would I have if life were different?September 25, 2014 – 10:18 pmReplyCancel

  • Twindaddy - Thank you for sharing your experiences, Patty. I can’t even begin to imagine how rough that time was for both you AND your husband.September 24, 2014 – 10:03 amReplyCancel

    • Pattie - TD,
      The separations were equally tough on the guys. Sometimes I would forget that my husband was alone, too. Although alone (with his friends) in Rome couldn’t have been THAT bad, right?September 24, 2014 – 6:25 pmReplyCancel

      • Twindaddy - I wouldn’t mind seeing Rome…September 24, 2014 – 9:05 pmReplyCancel

        • Kristi Campbell - I wanna see Rome, too. And I was just reminded of the tune to the I see your underpants thing so clearly I need more sleep (flew to Denver today after 4 hours sleep WITH a 5yo).September 25, 2014 – 10:20 pmReplyCancel

  • Dana - I remember when my husband traveled for work when our kids were little – four days felt like an eternity. I can’t imagine being separated for months and months, but you do what you have to do, right? Thank you for sharing your experience, Pattie, and thank your husband for his service.September 24, 2014 – 10:57 amReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Hi Dana,

      Sometimes the boat would do ‘weekly ops’ where they would leave on Monday and come back on Friday. I hated those the most. It would have been better if they just went out for a month, did their work and then came back. I feel you on weekly trips. They are no bueno.September 24, 2014 – 6:28 pmReplyCancel

    • Kristi Campbell - Dana, when Robert travels, I am both free and happy and also like OMG it’s too many hours until bedtime, at like, 6pm. So I agree with you and think Pattie and her family are awesome. And I thank them all for their service.September 25, 2014 – 10:30 pmReplyCancel

  • celeste - We recently lost our beloved Aunt Wendy, whose dedication to her husband Byron, also a submarine veteran, kept their family together. I always “knew” about their time before Byron’s retirement, but it wasn’t until friends from deployment shared their Wendy stories that it really sank in for me. Reading this post here gives me more insight, and I can’t thank you enough for that.

    I am so glad that you and your husband have one another. And that you finally have *time* together now. Wishing you all the best.September 24, 2014 – 1:09 pmReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Celeste,
      My condolences on your lose of your Aunt Wendy. I am sure that I would have liked her if I had known her. I hope that she and Byron had many years together after his retirement. It really was tough at times and a lot of inner strength went into those deployments. Thank you for your wishes, and we do appreciate our time now.September 24, 2014 – 6:34 pmReplyCancel

    • Kristi Campbell - Celeste, I’m so so sorry for the loss of your beloved Aunt Wendy. Thank you so much for your comment and for the visit.September 25, 2014 – 10:32 pmReplyCancel

  • Kenya G. Johnson - Wow! I never knew that about the Cold War deployments/returns. That is really sad. I married my now retired Marine when he was in 8 years, so I missed the early deployments, like Desert Storm. And I didn’t have nearly as many as some spouses do or for the length of time. My lonely time was the first year of our marriage and living overseas with quite a bit of “exercises” some going out with the Navy. We missed our first anniversary together and at the time that was devastating to me. I survived though. That said I can imagine how hard it is. Those months prior that you act nice while getting ready to be separated and then the return is equally weird, like you have to date and get to know each other and learn to live with each other all over again. I didn’t have the technologies of today either. Well we had sporadic email, but not very many phone calls. When I did get the phone calls they were awkward, like him asking how the grass looks since someone else was cutting it. Stupid small talk. I don’t miss it at all. It’s something hard to get used to and then hard to get used to them never going anywhere again – you know? Thanks for sharing your experience.September 24, 2014 – 1:58 pmReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Kenya,

      You get it. You have been there and done that. The small talk, the awkwardness of a homecoming, missing anniversaries, birthdays, holidays. The Marines did a lot of exercises with the Navy and it is easy to forget that some Marines were gone as much as the sailors were. Some of the stuff was really sad, but there were some really great times too. I am just really happy that you read this. Thank you.

      Please tell your husband ‘thank you’ for his service and you were right there with him so thank you, too.September 24, 2014 – 6:42 pmReplyCancel

    • Kristi Campbell - Kenya, my husband was retired Army (by a couple of months) when I met him but has traveled a bit since then (the scariest was Afghanistan) and I know what you mean by things like “does the grass look okay?” even just in a short time. I think that what Pattie and her sister wives did (and what their husbands did) is both extraordinary and amazing and just the life that was the life… if that makes sense. It’s funny (not the haha type) what we deal with, isn’t it?September 25, 2014 – 10:34 pmReplyCancel

  • Elizabeth - I love “The Hunt for Red October” and love it even more as we move farther and farther away from the Cold War. I have a devil of a time trying to explain the Cold War to my son – how intense it was, how sometimes scary it was. I can’t imagine trying to explain it and your husband’s absence to your daughter. Thank you for sharing your window into that important part of history. And thank you and your husband for your service.September 24, 2014 – 2:38 pmReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Elizabeth,

      The Cold War was weird, intense, scary, silly, posturing, and demanding. We didn’t go into a lot of details with our daughter. She was pretty young for most of this. Explaining the separations was a little bit easier. When she was little we told her that daddy had to take the submarine out to the ocean to play with the dolphins and whales. When she got older we just shrugged it off since we lived around other Navy families and she was used to other dads going away and then coming back.

      Thank you for reading and commenting, and you are welcome for the window share. I will pass on your thanks to my husband.September 24, 2014 – 6:53 pmReplyCancel

    • Kristi Campbell - XO Elizabeth. I’d forgotten about that movie. It was so good… and so well, yeah, kudos to Pattie and her family for getting through it with so much love and grace.September 25, 2014 – 10:36 pmReplyCancel

  • Lizzi Rogers - Pattie, you KNOW how much I love this piece already, especially this: “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.” – you were FOR each other. That’s a very precious community of sister wives and I’m so very glad you all had each other 🙂September 24, 2014 – 4:47 pmReplyCancel

  • Don - This sort of service to the country and our communities is not for everyone, and it’s noble. It’s also always harder on the families than it is the soldier, or even in my case, the police officer. The wives are the ones who worry and have to pretend they’re happy on Christmas morning while dad’s away doing what he does. Kudos to your family for making this world a better place to live.September 24, 2014 – 5:18 pmReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Don,
      I JUST found your site a few minutes ago. I died laughing at Lick’n Lunch. So much eewww hahahaha anyway…

      You are a policed officer?! Stabler, you are a freaking hero right here at home. Thank YOU for putting your life on the line every. single. day. Your wife ‘gets it’ too. We do what we have to do. Every family has their ‘thing’ some of us just like a little more ‘excitement’. 😉

      Thank You and your family for making our communities better places to live.September 24, 2014 – 6:58 pmReplyCancel

    • Kristi Campbell - YAY to my peeps meeting my peeps and I loved the lunch licking thing too… but all services are to be commended. All. Those served by the families, the officers and soldiers, the kids, the parents hoping their kids are safe in their service…September 25, 2014 – 10:37 pmReplyCancel

  • Dawgz Rule - Pattie is just one great package of awesomeness. We lost touch for a number of years but I count my blessings that we are in touch again. One of the few people that I consider to be a great, great friend. She is my awesome Rock Band partner too!!September 24, 2014 – 6:35 pmReplyCancel

  • Jen Schneider Kehl - This is a beautiful and amazing perspective. She’s right, we knew all about the Cold War, but we never saw the individuals. I for one am proud to be an American and even more proud of the service men and women AND there spouses who are the reason we have the freedoms that they kept safe. Thank you so much Pattie and thank your husband!September 24, 2014 – 6:45 pmReplyCancel

  • Tamara - There was so much I didn’t know..
    I can’t imagine this life and I don’t think I’d have it in me. This is amazingly strong of both of you, and I’m glad you found comfort and love with sister wives.September 24, 2014 – 8:36 pmReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Thank you for reading and commenting Tamara. It was tough and some families could not handle the separations. It was so sad when that happened because usually the couple still really loved each other, they just could not work through the separations.
      My Sister Wives were vital to me. I am grateful for them even 30 years later.September 25, 2014 – 7:00 amReplyCancel

    • Kristi Campbell - I, too, am so glad that you had your sister wives, Pattie. And Tamara thank you. I think you could do it.September 26, 2014 – 11:42 amReplyCancel

  • Lisa @ Golden Spoons - Wow! What a perspective to share. My husband travels for work and is sometimes gone for 4-5 days at a time. I cannot imagine him being gone for 4-5 months – or more. Thank you, Pattie, for sharing your story.September 24, 2014 – 8:49 pmReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Lisa,
      Any time a spouse travels for their job it brings a lot of issues to the surface that have to be handled. Keep those lines of communication wide open! When my husband would come home all he wanted to do was stay home but all I wanted to do was go somewhere. We figured out how to make both of us happy. Find your common ground! Thank you for commenting and you are welcome.September 25, 2014 – 7:03 amReplyCancel

    • Kristi Campbell - Thank you Lisa and I know what you mean about when our husbands are gone for a few days being rough. All the stuff is so much harder. My husband is thinking of going back from our vacation early and I’m dreading traveling home alone with my son, just because of the little things – dragging all the plane stuff in the airport bathrooms, etc. I guess people get used to it but Pattie and her family should definitely be recognized for their service!! 🙂September 26, 2014 – 11:45 amReplyCancel

  • Emily - Thank you for sharing this. My dad was in the navy and he often talks about it, even at the age of 81. I think it’s beautiful to hear about the bonding and support that the women shared during times of deployment. I can see how that is what sustained each of you – female friendships are powerful.:)September 24, 2014 – 9:39 pmReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Emily,
      Did you grow up a Navy kid? If you did then you know first hand what families did to survive the loneliness. Please tell your dad thanks! And I love my sister wives. Together we are better!September 25, 2014 – 7:06 amReplyCancel

    • Kristi Campbell - Here’s to female friendships!! And thanks Emily. And thanks, Pattie.September 26, 2014 – 11:47 amReplyCancel

  • Allie @ The Latchkey Mom - I cannot even imagine what it must be like – but I felt your loneliness with this line: “the kind of dull ache that gnaws at your heart and takes a slice from your soul with every passing day.”September 25, 2014 – 9:57 amReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Allie,

      Looking back, I think if I would have had a clue of what I was signing on for I may have tried to talk my husband into a different career field. By the time we both realized how hard it was it was too late to quit! Thank you for reading and commenting.September 25, 2014 – 11:24 amReplyCancel

    • Kristi Campbell - Allie, I know… sigh.September 26, 2014 – 11:48 amReplyCancel

  • Kerri - Patti,
    First thank YOU for YOUR service. It’s not just your husband that served with honor, dignity and time. It’s the family who serves as well. Second, I love how you define why empathy matters and sympathy hurts. I have many Service friends and let me tell you, their families are the bravest people I know. I have also been the witness to the sailor coming home and finding his wife gone. There is nothing more heartbreaking.

    Thank you for sharing your story. It is incredible.September 25, 2014 – 10:32 amReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Kerri,

      You made me feel really good about this post. I am glad that you ‘got’ what I was trying to convey. It was some tragic stuff when a wife would leave while the boat was deployed. Heartbreaking for sure. Today’s military families are facing some difficult times too. I applaud them for standing up to the bad people.September 25, 2014 – 11:28 amReplyCancel

    • Kristi Campbell - Exactly Kerri! Being witness to the sailor coming home and his wife is gone. That happened to my mom’s brother when he came back from Vietnam. So heartbreaking – all of it. xo to Pattie and her family!September 26, 2014 – 11:57 amReplyCancel

  • zoe - WOW Pattie , amazing stories…. I have to say that our thanks belong with the families as well ( I know its been said but cant be said enough) SO much at risk for all involved not just from bombs and terror but on the home front the anxiety families live with and the anxiety of coming home to something that you never expected… I dont even know if Im making sense… but thanks Pattie to all of you!September 25, 2014 – 7:04 pmReplyCancel

    • Kristi Campbell - You make perfect sense, as always, Zoe. And you’re exactly right.September 26, 2014 – 11:58 amReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Zoe,

      You made a lot of sense, perfect sense even. Thank you for your support of our military.September 29, 2014 – 12:03 pmReplyCancel

  • est. 1975 - What a beautiful piece, Pattie Thomas. And fascinating. I’ve been fascinated with the Navy my entire life as my grandfather was a gunner on a ship in the Pacific Theater during WWII. I loved reading about boats and submarines and I have The Hunt for Red October totally memorized. It’s interesting to hear real life stories from sailors, of course… but it’s also interesting to hear real life stories from the wives and families they leave behind while deployed. September 25, 2014 – 9:03 pmReplyCancel

  • Marcia @ Menopausal Mother - I cannot even begin to fathom being away from my husband for months at a time. The longest we have ever been apart is three days, and even that felt like torture. Nowadays spouses have it much easier with the internet and cell phones. You are right—we had to survive on snail mail and Ma Bell. I’ll admit though, I miss getting personal letters in the mail!September 26, 2014 – 10:29 pmReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Marcia,

      It’s kind of funny but, now that my husband is home all of the time I sort of wish that he would go on weekend hunting or fishing trips with the guys once in awhile. The art of writing letters is dying. Thank you for reading.September 29, 2014 – 8:13 pmReplyCancel

  • Yvonne - Very interesting post Pattie. I have some inkling of what you went through because my husband is a pilot and has often been away with work. It wasn’t months on end though, so I can only imagine how hard that must have been. Our worst time was 2 months when when our kids were very small, during which he only got home occasionally. Did your daughter feel upset by her dad’s absence? Ours did, particularly the younger one.
    I can definitely understand how the support of other submarine wives would have got you through. For me the hardest thing was when we lived in a town where I didn’t have friends and days went by without speaking to an adult. I found this sentence particularly poignant: “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.” Empathetic friendship is a wondrous thing!September 28, 2014 – 5:33 amReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Yvonne,

      Thank you so much for your kind words. As our daughter grew up she better understood the reason behind the deployments but of course she still missed her dad. It was sad when she was little and would cry for him. Of course that made me cry, it was tragic. We survived. I know how difficult it is to be alone when and have your husband gone too. I learned to make friends and get involved in something just to keep my sanity.September 29, 2014 – 8:17 pmReplyCancel

  • Sandy Ramsey - Oh, Pattie! What a great piece! You know, as civilians we see the families left behind and hear the stories but you shine a light on the harsh realities. I cannot even imagine how difficult it must have been. I’m so happy that you were able to persevere and that now you are able to have your husband home and enjoy your lives together. You’re pretty amazing!September 28, 2014 – 9:54 amReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Sandy,

      I am over the moon because of what you said. You know I am awe of your strength and perseverance so hearing that you think the same thing about me is freaking amazing. It was a hard way to spend twenty years, and I would be remiss if I said that it was a waste. We both learned things that have served us so well in our lives. But gosh I am glad to be done!September 29, 2014 – 8:20 pmReplyCancel

  • Dyanne @ I Want Backsies - Pattie, this is fascinating! I’ve never lived anywhere that had any kind of military base near it (except when I was really little – too little to understand), so I’ve never seen what it’s like for military families when there is a deployment. Do you think the ones today with internet and cell phones have it easier, or do you think it would make it harder to be so close and yet so far away?September 28, 2014 – 12:53 pmReplyCancel

    • Pattie - Dyanne,

      I have often wondered in retrospect, what it would have been like if we even had had reliable email. Our very last deployment we had “e-mail’, and I use that word very loosely in comparison to what we know email to be now. It was censored, and it didn’t go right to the boat. It went to an email address at squadron where it was held until official messages were being sent and then batches would be sent at once.

      Based on my personal experiences I think that the constant communication is both good and bad for deployed personnel and the families. I bet WWIII will be started over this statement but I know of wives who are a constant barrage of daily BS to their husbands while they are deployed. The deployed service member does not have time to deal with this stuff and it totally wrecks his ability to be 100% for his team. On the other hand, when the service member can see his kids happy face on Skype I am sure that he is motivated to do his best to stay safe and get home to his family. It’s a subject I bet the Department of Defense wishes didn’t exist.September 29, 2014 – 8:28 pmReplyCancel

  • Comfytown Chronicles - Love you, Pattie. Thanks for sharing your brutal and beautiful truth. I can’t even imagine. My daughters practically lose their minds every day waiting for Daddy to come home for dinner, if he has to travel or stay late, they’re inconsolable 🙂
    It’s nice you to had a support system, that would have to be key. I can’t imagine how strong you are having this life.September 29, 2014 – 2:44 pmReplyCancel

  • Ashley - So beautiful and poignantly told, as usual Pattie! Yours is a rare experience and voice of Americana. Loved this.October 1, 2014 – 8:52 pmReplyCancel

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