Families eagerly waiting for their sailors
September 25, 2008
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Young Thomas Curtin took a poke at the family globe. "Here’s Japan," he said, with five-year-old confidence.
"Are you sure?" his mom, Erica, asked gently, as Thomas’ finger appeared lodged somewhere in Siberia.
Another stab and Thomas had it. "We’re here?" he asked of his new position on a north-south stretch of lands surrounded by water.
"We’re standing right there," Erica said.
"There" is a housing tower south of Tokyo at Yokosuka Naval Base, where the Curtin’s have lived since April.
They make up one of more than 240 families of servicemembers attached to the USS George Washington that arrived ahead of the ship — some far ahead, as a May 22 fire aboard the carrier laid up the ship for several months in San Diego for repairs.
The fire, which the Navy says was caused by a cigarette, inflicted minor injuries on 37 sailors and caused about $70 million in damage to 80 of the carrier’s 3,800 workspaces.
For many of the families, it meant settling into Japan alone.
"Leaving friends and family, boarding a plane with two dogs and a three-year-old, and heading to a foreign country — it was a test of faith," spouse Courtney Woodworth said. "It has been a real growing experience. I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of."
Would she have done things differently if she would have known about the delay in advance of the move?
"No," Woodworth said and then paused, adding: "I would have packed lighter."
Woodworth, as president of the George Washington’s Family Readiness Group, is in touch with many of the ship’s families in Japan and keeps tabs on how everyone is doing, she said.
For the most part, the families are doing well, although they’ve missed their sailors.
"We’ve had so much help and support," Woodworth said. "Everyone is doing pretty well. It’s not easy, but it’s been made easy by people supporting us."
The hardest — and most fascinating — thing to get used to is the cultural differences in Japan, Woodworth said.
"The driving on the opposite side of the road and knowing that not everyone speaks your language is tough," Woodworth said. "But even at McDonald’s the employees wear hose and high heels and care about what they’re doing. People care here and are more than patient with us."
Curtin opted to enroll her daughter, Daniella, in Japanese preschool. And Thomas likes Japanese food — especially "Japanese gravy," he said, referring to brown curry sauce.
"We’re brave when it comes to trying new things," Erica said, listing off recent excursions to Kamakura and a climb up Mount Fuji. Natto — odoriferous fermented soybeans — is the only thing she can’t recommend, she said.
Victoria Gibbons arrived in August with her 12-year-old and two teenagers. The kids immediately jumped into school activities, she said, and have been adventuring out to the arcade and trying the trains.
"They’re enjoying more freedom, because Japan is so safe, and are transitioning well," Gibbons said.
She hadn’t wanted to uproot everyone initially, she added.
"It’s totally different over here. We had intended to stay, but my husband said please come, so we did," Gibbons said.
The next step will be to help their Navy spouses, geo-bachelors and single sailors make the adjustment, Woodworth said.
When the carrier comes in, plans are in place for a big welcome — and to make sure single sailors and geo-bachelors get a home-cooked meal and a place to go on Thanksgiving, she said.
"We don’t want anyone to be a base rat," Woodworth said. "We want to tell them that we’ve been through it; we know it’s rough, but they’ll survive it."