SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Ashley Payne and Curtis Phillips were inseparable.
Until he joined the Navy.
The couple always knew they would be together forever, but marriage came down to the question of proper “timing.”
After almost four years of dating, the two 19-year-olds wed in March, deciding to exchange vows while Phillips was on leave following completion of the Navy’s security officer “A” school.
After technical school, Phillips found out that he would be headed for Sasebo.
But his wife would not be going with him.
Under a longstanding Navy policy sailors stationed overseas and in Hawaii cannot gain command sponsorship for their spouse or children until they achieve the rank of E-4. Phillips is a seaman apprentice, or E-2.
“I was heartbroken,” said Payne, “because I knew it would be the last time I would see him for a very long time.”
Heading into military life, both were prepared for some initial separation and challenges that come with serving one’s country. However, Payne says they were overwhelmed when they found out Phillips was headed to Japan without her. They have seen each other for about 25 days since Phillips joined in October 2010, and have spent only three days together as husband and wife.
The soft-spoken Phillips was reluctant to speak with Stars and Stripes.
“Sometimes it’s hard focusing and stuff like that [because I miss her],” he said last month. “I’m not trying to complain, but it’s not something I enjoy.”
If the spouse of a servicemember is granted command sponsorship, the government pays for travel costs and shipping of household goods and provides on-base housing, an increase in the cost-of-living allowance and other benefits. Without it, on-base housing is denied.
The Navy is the only service to put such restrictions on its enlisted troops.
Spouses like Payne are still technically allowed to come and would still collect an off-base housing allowance, but the sailor and spouse are left to foot the bill for everything else. In addition, without command sponsorship, there are fewer employment options on-base for spouses, lower priority on medical care, and no enrollment of children in the base schools.
The Navy discourages “self-sponsorship,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Ramon Lustre of the Navy’s Personnel Support Detachment in Sasebo.
“They’re dependent restricted,” he said. “They can come but they’re not going to get the entitlements. ... I don’t know how they can live with that. There’s no way” to afford self-sponsorship on an entry-level sailor’s salary.
But the allowances that sailors like Phillips receive for being separated from their families nearly matches off-base rents in places like Sasebo.
A modest two- or three-bedroom home can start at about $1,000 per month close to Sasebo Naval Base. Payne said the Navy pays her $700 a month to rent an apartment in Tennessee, and Phillips receives $200 each month in spousal separation pay. Were Payne to accompany Phillips unsponsored, the couple would be unable to afford rent and utilities, let alone the cost of her plane ticket and the shipping of their household goods.
Navy officials say the lack of available housing is another reason for the rule.
“Because of limited government housing in most overseas locations, established eligibility priorities, and the unusually high cost of housing in local economies, the Navy adopted its current practice,” Mike McLellan, a spokesman for the Navy Personnel Command in Tenn., said in an emailed response to Stars and Stripes.
Yet according to data provided by officials in Sasebo, there are 661 family housing units either at Sasebo Naval Base or in surrounding base controlled areas. Out of those units, 140 are currently vacant.
Navy officials in Yokosuka declined to comment on the availability of family housing at that base near Tokyo.
Navy’s different rules
It’s unclear exactly when the Navy instituted its policy, or why it differs from the other services.
The issue of command sponsorship is decided by individual commands, according to Maj. Neal Fisher, the deputy director of public affairs for U.S. Forces in Japan. For sailors in Japan, the policy was adopted to fall in line with the overall Navy policy, Commander Naval Forces Japan spokesman Jon Nylander said.
Citing the Defense Manpower Data Center, there are 19,090 sailors below E-4 married to a civilian and stationed overseas, McLellan said, and 1,962 sailors who are single with children and not allowed sponsorship for them.
McLellan said that the Navy tries not to station these sailors overseas if they are married or have children.
“It is a longstanding Navy practice to preclude assignment of sailors below the pay grade of E-4 with family members to all overseas areas,” McLellan said. “However, if readiness needs dictate, those sailors may be assigned in an unaccompanied status.”
McLellan said that his research revealed “no historical information” pinpointing the exact year the policy was implemented.
A closer look at the other branches reveals the glaring difference in Navy policy.
On Okinawa, Marines with at least 36 months in their tour are allowed command sponsorship for their spouses, said 1st Lt. Lindsay Pirek, a spokeswoman for the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Unit. She said the Marine Corps in general doesn’t have a policy like the Navy’s.
“We have married E-3s and below here and their families,” Pirek said.
U.S. Army Japan spokesman Maj. Randall Baucom said command sponsorship is determined by tour length (more than 12 months) for the 2,800 soldiers stationed in Japan. He said there are 455 soldiers in Japan below the grade of E-4 who have command sponsorship for their dependents.
“I know it has nothing to do with rank but has to do with the length of tours,” he said. “That kind of surprises me that the Navy would do that.”
The Air Force also has tour-length restrictions but nothing based on rank, said Air Force Capt. Tania Bryan, chief of public affairs at Yokota Air Base, Japan. Bryan said there are over 100 Yokota airmen below E-4 living in accompanied housing.
Difficult for sailors
The Navy directive has led to some marriage problems for sailors in Sasebo, according to base chaplain Lt. Daniel Dawson.
“For some sailors it can be difficult,” said Dawson, who has counseled sailors who are having difficulties with their marriages.
Chaplains counsel sailors, he said, but even their best methods can do little to fill the void left by a distant family member.
Chief of Navy Chaplains Rear Adm. Mark Tidd declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the policy and whether chaplains are advised on how to deal with the issue.
Dawson suggested that separated couples keep communicating any way they can and as often as they can and, if couples do seek therapy or counseling, they should share their experiences with one another.
“It doesn’t make the distance any easier, but it does make things a little easier,” he said. “The struggles come when communication ceases with the frequency that a relationship requires.”
Payne and Phillips are doing everything they can to stay in touch. Even with an almost opposite time schedule, the couple keep in constant communication.
They have started fighting over insignificant issues, Payne admits. She said she even finds herself holding back when speaking about her problems because being so far away, there is simply nothing Phillips can do to help.
And their dreams of starting a family will have to be put on hold.
“We’re in it for the long run. I’m not going anywhere,” Payne said. “But that’s not to say I don’t know how much more I can take.”