For spouses, waiting is the hardest part
March 23, 2003
SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Lt. Brian Randall went to sea about six weeks ago as the USS Juneau’s air boss and safety officer, and wife Amy Randall waits.
Like all ships from Sasebo, the Juneau has an ombudsman to serve as liaison between the command and families. Still, the ship’s leaders cannot tell ombudsmen or family members where the ship is or what it’s doing.
“I’ve found that to be really difficult,” Amy Randall said. “He e-mails me about every day, and then I’m able to send him digital pictures of this little guy,” she said about their son, Sebastian, who’s closing in on his second birthday. “That helps him a lot. But that’s it. He can’t tell me where he’s going, or for how long, and that’s the hardest part … not knowing.”
Capt. Tonya Ulmer also said the hardest part is “the waiting game.”
Ulmer is protocol chief for the 35th Fighter Wing, Misawa Air Base, Japan. She last saw her husband Nov. 18, she said. Her husband, Scott, an F-16 pilot with Misawa’s 14th Fighter Squadron and also a captain, joined the 14th’s “Fighting Samurai” that day, supporting Operation Southern Watch over Iraq’s southern no-fly zone.
“If you talked to me three weeks ago, I was having a hard time because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said. “Now we see light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a matter of time before the guys get the job done and come home. I can deal with it better now that something is happening.”
Naomi Salter is married to Air Force Maj. Larry Salter, with Kadena Air Base’s 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron. He left Okinawa in late November for a 90-day deployment to Saudi Arabia. Salter called this week to say he was safe in Turkey, but he would have to limit his conversations with her to two 15-minute calls per month, she said.
That doesn’t leave much time to talk about one particularly trying month, in which Naomi Salter’s car had a flat, another car rear-ended her and she rammed into another car off base. Having to renew the Japanese compulsory insurance and personal insurance on her cars, while all four of her children were sick, added to the mix.
“There was a time I was thinking, ‘What is going on here?’” she said. “But after I slept on it, I knew the sun was going to rise again and the situation was not so bleak.”
At Sasebo, Michelle Jones waits for Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Jones, deployed aboard the USS Fort McHenry more than a month ago. She said she doesn’t know where the ship is, where it’s going or when it’ll return — but she knows it could be ordered to participate in the war with Iraq.
“I’m not too happy about that one,” she said. “It worries me, and I’ve been praying that my husband won’t be there.”
Sometimes not knowing is almost a blessing, Tonya Ulmer said. Details about her pilot husband’s work remains a mystery.
“He never talks about it,” she said. “I last spoke to Scott on Wednesday. He didn’t indicate that anything was about to happen.”
That her husband can’t say what he’s doing is a protective mechanism, she said.
“What I don’t know doesn’t hurt me. Of course I’m concerned, but I know we have the best capabilities in the world, and these guys trained really hard here. He’s good at what he does, that gives me peace of mind.”
She has other tasks to occupy her, she said: protocol duties, preparing for a July transfer to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas and the birth of their first child this summer.
The Misawa couple married last June and are expecting a daughter around June 19.
“We’re very hopeful he’ll be home in time,” she said.
Amy Randall at Sasebo shares that concern. She’s a month away from the due date of her second child.
“I just hope he’s back for the birth of his child,” she said. “For that, there’s been a lot of prayers.”
Others are coping with keeping families together while assuming new and sometimes strange duties in their spouses’ absence.
Marisol Carter’s husband, Sgt. Maj. Anthony Carter, assigned to Okinawa’s Marine Air Control Squadron 4 at Marine Corps Air Station, Futenma, deployed to Afghanistan in October. That left Marisol to mow the lawn, which she’d never done.
“That’s my husband’s job, and he never goes grocery shopping,” she explained. “We made that agreement.”
She hasn’t had to mow often, though, because neighbors — she’s not sure which ones — have been doing it while she’s not home.
“They probably saw me,” she laughed, “and I’m sure it wasn’t a pretty sight.”
At Sasebo, Amy Randall praised the informal support friends and neighbors have extended.
“It’s great that we have spouse support here,” she said. “That helps a tremendous amount. When I need help with Sebastian, they’re there. When I come to the base for errands, they’ll keep an eye out for him while I’m off doing the errands.
“It’s not something that’s orchestrated. It’s just friends helping out friends,” Randall said. “But the base also has great spouse support, like a play group for the kids, where you can talk to other spouses about issues that you don’t know how to handle, like gripes you might have with the ships.”
Last week, Michelle Jones, 20, and her toddler son, Michael, joined the play group sponsored by Sasebo’s Fleet and Family Services Center. At the regular two-hour sessions, children interact while parents network and socialize, said FFSC official LaDonna Kolman.
Sometimes, though, nothing works like a bit of pampering. On Okinawa, Carter said she and her two children, Athena, 11, and Tony, 8, also rely on support from friends at church and at the American Red Cross, where she volunteers.
But over the Christmas holiday season, they returned to her native New York City to visit friends and family “to bring a different element of excitement, so the kids wouldn’t be so sad,” she said. “They still missed him, but not to the degree they would have if we had stayed here.”
At Misawa, Tonya Ulmer attends weekly gatherings with other squadron wives for dinners and brunches at the Misawa Officers’ Club. In December, a group of them went to South Korea for shopping.
“That was a blast,” she said. “Of course, we all spent too much.”
But no one pretends such strategies are anything but stopgaps.
Marisol Carter said her husband calls and e-mails every day. They joke and talk about how the kids are doing, she said — but when he comes home, the couple plan to take 30 days off to reconnect.
Spouses rely on casual networks, base programs
Your servicemember husband or wife is on a long deployment. What’s a spouse to do?
• Many spouses say they form loosely knit networks with others in the same predicament and find this interaction very helpful.• Most commands have family or spouse organizations that sponsor special events. Recently, the USS Juneau’s group held “Together Time,” a parent/child project, at Sasebo Naval Base in Japan.• Before deployments, personnel from deploying units, with experts from organizations such as the Navy’s Fleet and Family Service Center, hold pre-deployment briefings with families, said Tamya Carter, family advocacy educator at Sasebo’s FFSC. The briefings cover topics including wills and powers-of-attorney and what to do about administrative, financial, medical and other issues while the servicemember is deployed.• During deployments, Carter said, experts from entities such as the Navy’s Fleet and Family Service Center hold mid-deployment briefings with families to update the spouses and discuss some of the issues touched on in the pre-deployment briefing.• Organizations such as the Navy’s Fleet and Family Services Center provide educational programs, arts and crafts, social activities and even individual counseling for spouses and children left behind by servicemembers on deployment, explained Elaine Horrell, marriage and family counselor at the FFSC in Sasebo.• A new program for pregnant women who could give birth before their husbands’ return to port is offered, according to LaDonna Kolman, new family support nurse with the FFSC. The Dula Program, or labor partner program, arranges for volunteers to be with women during labor.
For more information, call the base department responsible for the well-being of families and spouses, and they will almost certainly have a program or service to meet your needs.
— Compiled by Greg Tyler