With the holidays just around the corner, there is someone to whom ol’ Panama would like to give a special present. In fact, I’d like everyone to give this special person a present over the holidays. This special someone does more work, puts in more hours, sacrifices more, and receives far too little credit. You may be thinking that I’m talking about the American soldier, but I’m not. I’m talking about that soldier’s spouse.
I didn’t come to this way of thinking naturally either. As a sailor, I would often see t-shirts in the Navy Exchange stating “Navy Wife – the toughest job in the Navy” and I’d roll my eyes. After all, my wife had spent exactly zero days deployed at sea. ZERO. But while stationed at Fleet Activities Yokosuka, Yokosuka, Japan, I had an epiphany. I truly saw the light.
One day, on an afternoon off, I received a phone call from my wife’s friend, Atsuko. Atsuko is Japanese and English is her second language. When I answered the phone, she was clearly beside herself. She pleaded, “Bob-san, where is Aiko?” (my wife). I replied that she was visiting her mother and wouldn’t be back until the next day. At that moment, Atsuko’s voice became very small and she asked me, “Can you come to the hospital? I need your help”.
Atsuko is a mother of two and her children and my two children were close friends. I could tell by the tone of her voice something was very wrong. I don’t know what she said next because I was on my way to the hospital Emergency Room and hung up on her (in retrospect, not my finest moment as I didn’t tell her I was on my way).
When I got to the Emergency Room, Atsuko was waiting with her son, Davey, and she relayed the story. Her two children, being children, decided to have a contest to see who could stick the biggest rock in their ear. Fortunately for young Davey, his older sister Ashley won the contest. Heather, in fact, had stuck a rock, so big, in her ear, that it had affected her balance and caused her to fall down. Hence, mom’s alert.
Ashley was decidedly freaked out by the entire ordeal. Many children like being dizzy and will induce the effect upon themselves but it’s pretty short-termed. Heather’s was not; she wanted it to end and she wanted it to end now. When it didn’t, she was not happy. So, the doctors told Atsuko that she would have to hold Heather while they surgically removed the rock from her ear. Atsuko, at the very same time, had to stay in the waiting room with Davey, who was too young to be left unsupervised.
So there she was. This poor woman. Both of her children reduced to tears. One of them panicked. She’s just been put in a catch-22 by people from a foreign country who she can’t fully explain herself to and her damned husband is probably on a port of call in Hong Kong!
It was a mess. I’ve never seen anything like it. She was holding it together by sheer responsibility and will. At that moment, I said to myself, “My God, I’ve done this to my wife”. And the blinders came off.
The more I thought about it, it wasn’t just the catch-22s at the Emergency room that I had exposed my wife to; she was forced to deal with constant separations and with short notice — in which she would be left to pick up all the pieces that were dropped by me as I grabbed my seabag and headed to sea.
And if the separations weren’t bad enough, the moves were enough to drive her crazy. We moved seven times in five years. My wife hated the constant packing and unpacking that was involved with being in the Navy. She wanted to set down roots for our family; the Navy calls that “homesteading” and it’s highly discouraged. We wanted to stay in Japan but the Navy made it clear that wasn’t going to happen. They wanted me stateside.
Depending upon the command you have, you can have a support system there for you or not. Unfortunately for us, my command and its leadership was more interested in promotion than taking care of their people so there wasn’t really a support system available to my wife when I was gone. She was alone to navigate the waters of Naval bureaucracy in a second language.
Then there were the panics and knee-jerk reactions after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. My wife was locked on the base in her own country. My children, who went to school off-base, could not attend school for a while because of the post attack panic and knee-jerk reaction. Everyone was treated like a criminal, even the children.
And of course, that lead to the war. She had to deal with the uncertainty of knowing her husband was on a ship at sea in a war zone — and the fact that I came back a changed person. I was angry, moody and I drank a lot for a while. I scared her and the children. We’re both still dealing with that. While I was gone, the children got sick, needed to be registered for school and started school and she had to deal with all of the preparation involved, by herself, because I was at sea.
Through all of that, she thought of me, because I was in the war. She didn’t put herself first and I haven’t met a military spouse yet who does. Their soldier, sailor, Marine, airman or coastie almost always comes first. That’s just the way military spouses roll. Doing all of these things lead to a great deal of stress for my wife. Even six years after I left active service, it still affects her.
So now I get it. When I walk around Fort Meade, when I see a lady wearing an “Army Wife – Toughest job in the Army” (because I really don’t think they make ‘Army Husband – Toughest job in the Army’ t-shirts and I don’t know how well they’d sell, but I digress) when I see those shirts, you will see no rolling of the eyes, ladies, you’ll get a knowing nod or perhaps even a salute from this old sailor because for the job you do. Boy, oh boy, you’ve earned it!