Navy moms cope with separation from families
Stars and Stripes June 15, 2003
ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON — They’re just words, a few sentences or paragraphs about last week’s track meet or who’s dating whom at school, but for Navy moms at sea, electronic mail is a lifeline.
It’s how sailors such as chief petty officers Melissa Martinez and Maggie Arriola, and Senior Chief Petty Officer Rebecca Richey, stay connected to their kids’ lives while deployed for months on end.
“Thank God for modern technology,” says Richey. “E-mail is a beautiful thing.”
Separation, though, is none the easier. They feel guilty when they miss that school play or can’t be there to settle a sibling dispute.
All three are USS Carl Vinson sailors. They haven’t seen their families since early January, when the nuclear aircraft carrier left its Bremerton, Wash., homeport. The ship is deployed to the Pacific region to serve as a deterrent to North Korea.
For years, Navy dads were the absent parent when their ship steamed off. However, the roles are reversing: in 2002, females made up 14 percent of the fleet.
Richey, whose two teenagers live with her ex-husband in Ohio, said the sacrifice is the same for either parent.
“It’s a lifestyle. Men have been doing it for centuries,” she said. “I don’t think they miss their children — and the development of their children — any less than we do.”
Still a mom
In uniform, Richey needs to be tough. A brig corrections specialist, she leads a staff of about 15 and works with the ship’s more unruly sailors. Discipline of her own children, though, is left up to their father in Eastlake, Ohio.
“He’s the one that does the day-in, day-out dealing with them, so there’s always that parent-sibling rivalry going on that I don’t experience with them,” she said.
Richey, 37, still plays a role in family disputes, albeit as objective mediator through e-mail.
“I don’t play sides. I always listen to them,” she said. “I always try to get them to see their father’s perspective.”
Phone calls from the ship are infrequent: rates are about $1 a minute.
Despite distances, Richey still asks Megan, 17, and Derek, 15, typical mom questions: “Who are you dating? How are your grades? Who are you hanging out with? What are you doing in your spare time?” she said.
They answer, but usually not right away. E-mails from the busy teenagers appear about every other week. They speak of conflicts at home, grades at school, and their latest musical instrument.
And then there are the digital family photos, which are promptly dispensed among friends and colleagues.
“We all share each others’ kids pictures,” Richey said. “We send them out to all the other female chiefs on board and some of the male chiefs. We put them all over our lockers.”
Sometimes, the photos give moms cause to fret.
“I get pictures and say, ‘She really needs a haircut,’” Martinez said of 5-year-old Ana.
A Navy journalist, Martinez, 35, also has a 15-year-old daughter, Danielle Rose. Sometimes, the teenager’s e-mails are fraught with emotion.
“She e-mailed me and said she was ready for me to come home because it hurts to see other moms and daughters going to the mall, hanging out,” Martinez said. “I’m not there, and it’s hard for her to see friends doing the mom thing.”
By her daughter’s choice of words and tone, Martinez could tell she had been crying.
“That was one of the times when you pick up the phone and spend $20 on a 20-minute phone call and just hear her voice and talk to her.”
Danielle attends ninth grade in the Navy town of Bremerton, Wash. When the Vinson’s more than 3,000 sailors deploy, support groups and counselors are available to students with absent parents.
Danielle says her friends are also supportive, but they can’t relate: “None of their moms are gone — all of their dads are gone,” she said. “I think it’s twice as hard for me.”
Danielle’s stepdad, Benito Martinez, cares for Danielle and daughter Ana. He and Melissa recently divorced, but they remain close, and Benito stays with the kids when Melissa deploys.
The three work as a team to keep the house clean and food on the table. A Navy recruiter in nearby Silverdale, Benito said the family copes without mom by finding “their own routine.”
They try to eat dinner together before Ana’s T-ball practice and Danielle’s driver’s education class.
“When the kids really need their mom, I just try to comfort them and let them know we’re all in it together,” Benito said.
The separation is perhaps hardest on Danielle, who considers her mother her best friend.
“Sometimes at night, I lie in my bed and think, ‘I wish she was here,’” she said. “There’s times it’s really hard. I wish she could help me, like with projects for school.”
But, mostly, Danielle misses talking to her mother. E-mail just doesn’t cut it.
“It’s hard not being able to talk to her face-to-face, and you can’t see her,” she said. “Everything is just words. It’s just so hard for me to do that.”
Arriola, an aviation boatswain’s mate, deploys to sea with peace of mind knowing her kids are in good hands: her husband, Richard Arriola, is a stay-at-home “Mr. Mom.”
“He does everything — takes them to school, soccer games. He cooks, cleans and pays the bills,” she said, “so it’s pretty comforting.”
The Arriolas’ three kids — Rocky, 17, Denver, 13, and Megan, 10 — are used to their mom being away, their mother said, while relaxing in berthing a day before the Vinson moored near Yokosuka Naval Base in May.
“I’ve been in the Navy 17 years. It’s just a way of life for us: ‘Oh, Mom’s gone.’ See you when I get back,” she said.
At least it seems that way: Richard always tries to paint a rosy picture for Maggie. “Everything’s fine,” he tells her. His wife manages 110 people in her department and he doesn’t want “to put more pressure in her head,” he said.
“I always tell her good stuff.”
The Vinson’s latest deployment is Maggie’s third, and the kids say the separations don’t get easier.
“It sucks,” Denver said in a telephone interview from Bremerton. “Usually, I’m always with my mom. We watch TV together and everything. I just miss her.”
Said Megan: “I think of her every night.”
Though the household stays intact, the absence of a mother and wife leaves an emotional void.
“All of a sudden, she’s gone and we’re left behind,” Richard said. “It’s kind of sad.”
The Vinson’s Navy moms say their kids don’t resent them. In fact, especially after Sept. 11, they’ve found that their children respect them and their careers more, they said.
Richey’s daughter recently e-mailed her mom that she was taking the ASVAB test to join the Air Force.
“And I have yet to get the grade,” Richey quipped.
Arriola’s oldest son surprised her when he said he wanted to join the Navy next year, she said.
Danielle Rose says she was always proud of her mom. But “after Sept. 11 hit, with what the military does and how they protect us, it just made me twice as proud of her,” she said.
That pride might be the only thing that gets Danielle through the next several months: Families of sailors aboard the Vinson were recently told not to expect a homecoming until at least this fall.
They thought the ship would be home in June.
“I’ve been waiting for her to come back around this time for so long,” Danielle said in late May. “When they said she wasn’t coming back until fall, I don’t know, it just hurt.”