Deployments leave foreign spouses facing unique obstacles
August 8, 2004
Fernanda de la Torre had been married for seven months, pregnant for one and living in Yokosuka for two weeks when the phone call came: Her husband was to deploy aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, now.
It would have been a difficult situation for almost anyone. But de la Torre is from Ecuador, spoke almost no English, let alone Japanese, and was utterly alone. “You know, it was terrible,” she said. “I see the ocean, and pray every day. I pray for my baby. I pray for my family.”
Soon, she made a decision. “I said, ‘I’m going home.’”
And so de la Torre packed a few bags and spent the next six months that her husband, Juan, was out to sea, with her family in Ecuador.
De la Torre and her husband met in Quito, Ecuador, where both attended the same high school. But other U.S. servicemembers abroad find love in all sorts of places, get married and bring their spouses — almost always wives — along with them to still more places.
On Yokosuka Naval Base alone, in addition to numerous wives from the Philippines, are those from Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Bali, Thailand, Venezuela, Columbia, South Korea, Germany, Sweden, England and Australia. There are also rumored to be a contingent of wives from as far away as Ethiopia.
“I’ve heard that, too,” said Scott Douglass, Yokosuka’s command statistician.
But Douglass doesn’t have statistics on the numbers of foreign-born spouses because each of the base’s 80 commands keeps its own data on dependents; there is no uniform system, he said. The U.S. Embassy, when asked about the numbers of foreign-born spouses, referred the matter to U.S. Forces Japan, which said it does not have those numbers available.
Whatever their numbers, being a non-English speaker on a base in a country other than one’s own can be challenging. In addition to dealing with a spouse’s absence during deployment, there may be unique immigration and legal issues, as well as unfamiliarity with both the host country, the U.S. military culture, and even their spouse’s Western culture. Such women can feel very isolated, quite quickly.
“At the beginning, it’s very hard,” said Song Shaffer, who was born in South Korea and recently helped start a new group for Korean wives on Yokota Air Base, Japan. “A lot of them come directly from Korea to here. A lot of them don’t know anything about American culture. They don’t know about immigration matters, legal matters, getting a Social Security card. Someone will tell them, ‘You need to go to the legal office,’ then at the legal office they say, ‘You need to go to the U.S. Embassy.’ There’s a lot of runaround.”
Shaffer was somewhat accustomed to the U.S. military because her father worked for the U.S. Army in South Korea, she said. Still, she said, it was an adjustment to being alone on a base in a foreign land — or anywhere for that matter — with her husband, an Air Force colonel, despite the fact that he read many books regarding Korean culture before they wed. “The biggest problem in a cross-cultural marriage is the communication problem,” she said. “It was kind of difficult, even for us.”
Communication difficulties extend beyond the marriage into the wider world. Foreign-born spouses “have the same problems as all the others, but they can’t express their needs,” said Michael Spiltener, of Yokosuka’s Fleet and Family Support Center, who teaches an English-as-a-second-language class and helps military spouses find jobs. Finding a job on base is just one more thing that’s more difficult without good English skills, Spiltener said.
Encounters at hospitals, with their specialized medical language, can be especially challenging. When de la Torre first went to the hospital on base, she said she requested “a nice doctor, because I can explain my problem but he has to be patient.”
For the past year or so, Yokosuka has offered a class for sailors’ Japanese wives on practical matters like finances and banking. “Just to understand how their husbands are paid, what the system is like, so they’re savvy,” said Rebecca Lombardi, clinical supervisor for the base family advocacy program at the Fleet and Family Support Center.
Marine Corps Family Team Building on Camp Foster, Okinawa, offers a similar program for Japanese wives of Marines. Program manager Lisa Gahagan said the base also has a lot of wives from South Korea and the Philippines. “Fortunately, there are fairly large Korean and Filipino communities here, so there’s usually someone we can tap who can help them when they need it. For others, we do our best to find someone who speaks their language and can be of help.”
Lombardi said no one has expressed a need for a group for non-Japanese but foreign-born spouses. Yokosuka’s Fleet and Family Support Center does have a Spanish-speaking counselor on staff, she said, for the wives from Spain, Mexico and South America.
But Wilma Greenfield, Yokota Family Advocacy outreach manager, who already helped start the Korean wives’ group on Yokota, already is thinking of starting another one for Filipinas. “If there’s a group interested, we’re willing to start it,” she said. “It’s a matter of getting some numbers and getting some interest. The idea is to get them connected and have a support system. One of the things we have discovered is if there’s food connected to an event, people tend to come.”
Spiltener said about 10 women come to his ESL class at Yokosuka and that many of them have connected socially, especially the Spanish-speaking women who share a language. “They can network,” he said. “They have a little group. They go out to lunch and some of them go sightseeing together.”
But that’s not how de la Torre, a slim, pretty woman of 35 with long brown hair and a warm, direct gaze, learned English and made friends. She learned English through one of her first jobs on base: babysitting. She felt free, she said, to ask the children what they’d said and have them repeat it. “That helped me a lot.”
And she met many of her friends in the commissary or base exchange. They would overhear her speaking Spanish to her son, then strike up a conversation.
But she met her best friend as she sat in the Family Assistance Team office, pregnant, miserable and trying to make arrangements to go home to Ecuador. “She asked me, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’” recalled Maria Vansant. “I said yes, and she started to cry.”
Vansant could relate. When she arrived in Yokosuka in January 1990, her husband deployed for six months the day after they’d moved into an off-base apartment — and before they’d had an opportunity to buy a car. “It was so cold there,” she said, “and I had to get a license and buy a car by myself.”
Like Vansant before her, de la Torre has grown accustomed over the past several years to life on a U.S. naval base in the middle of a foreign land. “When I first came here I never went by myself, even to the hospital,” she said from her cozy, immaculate home on the base. “Now I do everything by myself. It’s incredible!"
— David Allen contributed to this report.