San Diego's military wives – practicality incarnate

Troopers, angels, and heartbreakers

Cabrillo Navy Housing, Murray Ridge Road
  • Cabrillo Navy Housing, Murray Ridge Road
  • Image by Paul Stachelek

Clutter doesn’t exist In their homes. The first thing you notice is order; and you don't just see it, you feel it. Nothing is out of place. Toys are on shelves, coffee-table books and family photos are displayed on tables, the way they're supposed to be. When you accept an offer of iced tea, one wife takes the glasses she'll use from their box, high in the cupboard. Conversation is orderly as well, with unspoken but definite limits to what these women will and will not discuss. When the conversation heads out of bounds, the response is silence, perhaps a look that tells you. This isn’t going anywhere. Loyalty and responsibility are high priorities here. As one wife explains, “Everything I do my husband is responsible for. From writing a bad check to robbing a bank, he’ll be taken aside. Legally, financially, he’ll take the hit."

Navy Homecoming, 32nd Street

Navy Homecoming, 32nd Street


Military wives are the kind of women you want to live next door to if you have accident-prone children. They are practicality incarnate, and a lot of other things as well: supportive, conscientious, and, as they’ll be the first to tell you, they’d better be adaptable for the pickup ball lives they lead. “He was called on the phone at midnight and gone in the morning,” one says about her Marine husband. Their husbands are medics and electrician’s mates and communications officers and infantrymen, and they enlisted or went through ROTC for familiar reasons: because their fathers were military (and maybe their grandfathers) or because they weren’t'ready for school or because they wanted to see if they could do it or because they wanted what one wife calls “the stability and the guarantee of that paycheck twice a month.” And now they all answer to the same boss, the United States Armed Forces.

Family Reunion

Family Reunion


Kathleen is a trooper, a military wife from central casting — true-blue, dependable, unflinching. She is an officer’s wife, and when she shows me into her living room, I immediately have the sense that I should behave. This isn’t from anything she says or does — she’s polite and friendly, and I’m sure she doesn’t intend to be intimidating — but her home has the feel of a well-run business. It’s mid-afternoon and as we sit on the couch in her living room, I can smell dinner cooking in a Crock-Pot on the counter, the smell rich and warm, something with meat. Kathleen tells me that her husband’s elderly aunt, who is visiting from the Midwest, is napping in another room, and I sense a schedule and promise myself to be gone before nap time is over.

Everything about Kathleen — her uncluttered living room, her dining room set, her kids, her appearance — is neat, as in tidy. She is a small woman, dressed in slacks (not jeans) and a blouse (not a T-shirt). Her red hair is short and looks freshly cut, though you have the feeling it always does. Her two children, a boy, seven, and a girl, nine, both fair-skinned redheads, are, except for some minor interruptions, pretty invisible. They not only do what they’re told, they do it the first time, which I find remarkable, given the free-spirited albeit affectionate hooligans I call my children. Her kids play quietly on the patio, as told. I’d always thought “play quietly” was a euphemism I didn’t understand. And when her son hurts his finger during our conversation and she goes to examine the wound, the underlying message seems to be. There will be no tears. She offers the tools of comfort — ice and a Band-Aid — but she clearly expects a stiff upper lip.

Kathleen’s answers to my questions are tidy as well. Her voice is even and controlled, and the directness of her responses somehow makes me feel as though she’s interviewing me. In two hours, I don’t hear hesitation or defensiveness or sadness or anger in her voice, only a matter-of-fact acceptance that doesn’t give up. Take her attitude about all the moves she’s made (I counted five), “It’s a lot of weeding out and sorting, but it’s not terribly maddening. It just kind of happens, and you have to do it.” This seems to be her attitude about what most of us would call hardship, and her conversation is sprinkled throughout with common-sense remarks like “It was really no big deal” or “Well, you just accept whatever happens — it’s up to you to make the most of the tour.” She says, “I’ve always been able to make do with what’s been thrown at me. You have to, otherwise you’ll pull your hair out and be frustrated, and it’ll be an awful experience and it really doesn’t have to be.”

Kathleen’s matter-of-fact ness may be the result of growing up in a military family. “I don’t know anything other than military life,” she says. Her father is retired military; he served in World War II and the Korean War, and in Vietnam when she was in grade school. She remembers the frustration of talking to him on the phone and having to end her questions and answers to him with “Over.” She can tell from her expressions in her grade school pictures whether or not her father was gone. One year she’s smiling — he was home; another year she’s sad — he was away. One year when her father had to leave in October, her mother bought a fake Christmas tree and the family celebrated Christmas before her father left (she adds that her mother still has that tree).

When her father returned from Vietnam, Kathleen and her siblings had to watch themselves. “They’re trained and conditioned to be ready at all times, no matter what, because you never know if the person who taps you on the shoulder is friend or foe,” she says. “When Dad came back, Mom sat us down and said, don’t come up on your dad fast.” She remembers standing in the hallway in the middle of the night, needing something, but calling to him from the hallway until he awoke, knowing not to come up to him and wake him up. “I probably would have gotten my head knocked off,” she says, “but it didn’t frighten me. I just knew to call from afar and not sneak up on him.”

Kathleen met her husband in Twenty-Nine Palms, where her family had settled. “I was 21, he’s five years older. We got married and he went directly overseas for six months. It was an unaccompanied tour. We got married May the first, and he was gone in June. He was there a year, and we went to Quantico, Virginia, for one year, and then we went to Hawaii for three years, and that’s where my daughter was born. We moved to Camp Pendleton, he got stationed there, and we were here three years, and then he got orders to Ukota, Japan, which is an Air Force Base, so we moved to Japan. And my son was born when we were here — he happened along there somewhere. Then my husband wanted to be stationed at Camp Pendleton after Japan, so we’ve been back two years, and he will be retiring in two years. All big moves, no close moves.”

Kathleen rattles off this itinerary that she calls her life with the inflection you’d give a grocery list; and when she says her husband was gone for a year for the first year they were married, I think, A year? You mean the kind that’s 12 months, 365 days? and I get a panicky feeling in my stomach at the very thought of that kind of absence. But she says it as though she’s just told me her husband eats lunch every day; and when I ask what advice she would give to someone just starting out (How does she do this? I’m thinking), she says simply, “You have to be flexible. You can’t say. I’m sorry dear, you’re not going there. You don’t like to ever admit that the military comes first. You’d like to think that the family comes first in my husband’s eyes. I know we’re an extremely top priority, but with him being in the military, we kind of come in right beneath the military, because he goes when they tell him to, where they tell him to, and for how long they tell him to, and he does what they tell him to, and we just have to work around that. When my daughter was born, he wasn’t there. He was in Hawaii. Mom and Dad came over, and my sister. He came home for two weeks right after she was born, and then he had to leave again. That was it.”

Kathleen doesn’t have many complaints, at least not about the military. She’s concerned about the public schools her children attend and is good and ready to leave California when her communications-officer husband retires in two years, because of the schools and the high cost of living. But regrets? Nope. She’s loved the travel. She likes new places. She says you get used to packing up. And the effect on her kids? Fine. “They certainly don’t seem to have suffered any because he’s in the military,” she says. “They probably don’t even know what he does. They know their dad’s a major, but that doesn’t register anything. They might know he’s an officer.”

When I ask if she ever disagrees with her husband or the military about military policy — meaning our country’s military presence on foreign soil, for example — she interprets the question differently. “Oh, possibly I disagreed with the fact that we could not have concurrent travel to japan. I had to stay behind, I understood later. And probably the most recent frustration would have to be with the hospital. And uniforms, having to do with green T-shirt versus a white T-shirt, round neck versus V-neck. The commandant puts out policies on uniforms that not everyone agrees with, but you don’t get to change things.”

Even when I rephrase the question in terms of military action, she says simply that she and her husband don’t get into it. “It’s not that I’m not interested. I am and I should be, but he’s the one who’s directly involved. I can’t say I ever have a completely opposite opinion, because I don’t feel I’m as educated on maybe that issue, because I’m not that active-duty person, and he sees so much more on a day-to-day basis. He has information that I’ll never lay eyes on, so I don’t have the inside story. For example, there was a death on the base. It came out one way in the paper, and I said, oh, wow, and he said, yeah, there’s more to that. They’re making it look one way. He’s privy to more information than I am, and he’s very wise, a very knowledgeable person, very well read. I trust and respect his opinion. I’m not saying I don’t have any of my own, because God knows I do, but maybe they’re not on those military issues.”

Kathleen and I are talking on Memorial Day, and at the moment her husband is in Korea. “He’s been gone since the 14th of May, and he’ll be gone, he told me, approximately 60 days, but it could be longer, and I won’t see him until he comes home. There’s no chance of coming home for a vacation.” She admits that this was an exception; her husband had only a little more than a week’s notice (it’s usually six months), and “normally we’ll kind of know.” Not this time. Her husband was at a conference and he called her and said, “Guess what. I’m going to Korea.” “Well,” she says, “he was just as surprised as anybody, because he had just found out that day, and you just make do. He had the list of what he had to take with him and didn’t even know exactly where he was going to be. It was kind of a strange set of circumstances. But that’s the way it worked out. You just have to learn to make do. I got that mow-the-lawn lesson — in 13 years. I’d never learned to mow the lawn.

“He was given a set of orders with no return date — here’s what you take with you, here’s when you’re leaving, get your ticket. And you go to Hawaii on this day, and you will be briefed, and then you get on a plane and you go to Korea. And he didn’t even know if he was flying civilian or military out of Hawaii. He’s called twice, and I said, ‘Where in Korea are you going?’ and he said, 'I can’t tell you.' 'What are you going to be doing?’ ‘I can’t tell you, but here’s an address.’ Then he called from Korea, and he said, ‘I’m in Seoul. I’m staying at a five-star hotel.’ ”

She finds this particularly odd, because before leaving, her husband was instructed to bring something called a 782 kit, which includes gear like a canteen and a sleeping bag. “He didn’t know if he was going to be in a tent,” she says, “and that was what he had to take with him. That was the list, and he was at a hotel and he has his 782 gear, though he hasn’t used it in years.”

Before his assignment in Japan, Kathleen’s husband was in the 9th Comm Battalion at Pendleton, one of the first to ship out during Desert Shield. He had been sent to Japan in June, and his battalion was sent to Desert Shield in August, an event that came as a disappointment to him — it was what he’d trained for most of his career — and a relief to her. “And he got past it,” she says. “He knew it wasn’t going to change, and you march on and do that job that you have right then.” When he was part of the 9th Comm Battalion, he had his 782 gear all the time, but it had been packed away since then, and Kathleen laughs as she describes pulling boxes from the rafters of their garage, trying to reassemble her husband’s 782 kit. When her husband called the week before we talked, she says, he still didn’t have a clear picture of future operations. When she asked if he’d still be home in 60 days, his response was, “Could be longer.” They’ve never had anything like this happen, and she calls it a twist the military has thrown in. “Two years left, and they’re going to make it exciting for you.”

When we finish talking, I thank Kathleen and compliment her kids, who’ve wandered in and are sitting quietly, listening. She shows me to the door and we wish each other well, and as I head down the driveway, past her husband’s car, which is covered with a tarp, I’m relieved to be leaving before that Midwest elderly aunt made an appearance. I get in my car, start it up, and turn on some rock ’n’ roll, hungry for a little disorder.

Deployment. Rate. Workups. 782 gear. RHIP — rank has its privileges. Enlisted versus officer. Promotion; retirement, BAQ — basic allowance for quarters, key wives and ombudsmen: the vocabulary of their lives. The lifestyle does take its toll, at least it appears so to this outsider, despite Kathleen’s central-casting image. Women with children are called upon to be both mother and father during their husbands’ absences and to steer their children through what an ex-naval officer I talk to calls “the cyclical loss of the father.” When my dad shipped out to Korea in 1951, my brother was four and refused to take his shoes off, as though he needed to be ready at an instant. And one wife tells me that while she thinks her two-year-old son will have no trouble remembering his father who’s been gone for four months, she’s conscientious about doing what she can to strengthen that: pictures around the house, videos, tapes of his voice, “Because sometimes the fathers come back, and their young children are terrified of them. You have to make sure your children don’t forget who their father is.” “The husband comes and goes,” says one. “He’s part-time husband and part-time father,” says another.

Not only that; when the father’s gone, the woman has to assume at least some of his role. “When they’re gone, you’re Mom and Dad,” Kathleen says, “you have to be.” No easy task, but neither is the homecoming. That dual role during the father’s absence brings the mother to a dominant position with respect to the kids, and on his return, the father has to reestablish the male role, a tricky process that breeds frustration. If the woman doesn’t carefully relinquish some of her control — and if the father doesn’t watch his step and not try to reassert himself over dinner his first night home — there’s gonna be trouble. Over and over again, wives talk about how hard all this adapting is — and how precarious.

One wife says her husband is very careful during those first few days. “He makes a conscious effort not to just come in and start fathering, making decisions, whatever the case may be. He’ll sit back and see how things are functioning. When he comes home, the first time he might speak out as the disciplinarian, I get very defensive. I think, ‘Wait a minute, these are my kids. I know what they’ve been through, I know what they’re dealing with, and I know where they’re at. You don’t know them.’ But that’s usually after a month into the adjustment of being home. It’s hard for me to let him be the father, and it’s probably hard for him to take it on.”

The divorce rate is even higher in the military than in the general population. Husbands and wives are faced with long and repeated separations; unpredictable hours; and extended absences, even when the husband isn’t on deployment; the unpredictability of the future; and all those moves. The young wife of an enlisted Marine infantryman says that marriages in the military are either very strong or not strong at all, and other wives agree. Things like common roots, support structures, and solid and common value systems can help a marriage withstand the strain; but if a couple doesn’t have the tools to get help, staying married is tough.

“There are chaplains and counselors out there to help,” a Navy man says, “but they’re just people with jobs and good intentions.” As an example, he tells the story of a sailor who, after being at sea for only a few days, received a message from the chaplain telling him that his wife had left him. The explanation was that she’d had a vaginal infection diagnosed as gonorrhea, and she knew she hadn’t brought it home, so she just took off for her parents’, no questions asked. Only the diagnosis turned out to be a misdiagnosis; it wasn’t a venereal disease at all, just a common infection. She came back to her husband and they worked that one out — eventually.

Infidelity, of course, is a fear — and for many a reality — with separations as long and as frequent as they are for these men and women. And it’s one of the reasons one wife disagrees with her Navy husband about the role of women in the armed forces. “Six months is a long time to be putting men and women confined on one ship,” she says. “You can’t escape the temptation. You’re asking them not to be human, it’s exactly what the military is asking: Don’t get lonely. Don’t get discouraged or whatever the case may be and then find a woman next to you, working with you day by day, and resist the temptation to fall into physical or emotional attachment. When women came on board, I said, ‘It’s time to get off, I don’t care what they say.’ ”

The stereotype of infidelity is of the men fooling around while they’re away. “What happens on ship stays on ship” is the motto. But things aren’t always great at home. The women get lonely, and they’re often hit on by other military guys, guys who know which husbands are gone. My retired Navy dad tells a story about a Marine during the Korean War who, before he shipped out, made a notch with his fingernail in his wife’s tube of spermicidal jelly. When he came home, he checked the tube, and when the notch didn’t match what was left in the tube, he divorced her, just like that. A Navy wife says that how wives handle the absences is an individual thing, of course. “There’s support out there, but they don’t have to take it. If they don’t, that’s their choice. You’re going to do what you’re going to do; no one’s going to tell you not to do it. You have to trust in your relationship. I think you know before they leave. It’s in the relationship before they’re gone. I don’t hear a lot about infidelity, but the majority of people I’ve heard about haven’t surprised me.”

Which isn’t to say that fidelity is easy. Eve, whose Christian faith is as present in her home as her sense of order, readily admits that it’s difficult. “There’s temptation no matter how strong the marriage is. I’ve never worried about fidelity in our marriage and never given my husband any reason to. But when I say goodbye to my husband, I look at him and I say, ‘You be good,’ and he knows exactly what I mean. And that is, avoid all temptation, simple as that. And I’m going to do the same. You just don’t set yourself up for a fall.”

Heather is an angel. She is 22 years old and has a 5-month-old baby and is married to an enlisted Marine, also 22, whom she has known since they were in the 8th grade. You sense that she adores him. They’ve dated since the 11th grade, and she tells you all this in a Virginia accent that is so lovely you’d be happy to listen to her all day. She is dressed in a ruffled-violet blouse and black stirrup pants, and it is hard to believe that she gave birth five months ago. She has beautiful, long brown hair and large brown eyes, and it’s difficult to imagine her angry. She is so gentle that you would not want to be responsible for making her angry or sad or anything but happy. She is sweet and good, the kind of girl a lot of women would want their sons to bring home, with an innocence that makes her appear almost fragile.

Almost. lust underneath that sweet exterior you sense a steely protectiveness. She hesitates before each answer and weighs every word as she speaks. When she’s said all she wants to say, she just looks at me with her doe eyes, waiting for me to reroute us with the next question. Her small apartment has a feeling of stillness, and while part of that’s due to the quiet — you don’t hear traffic or kids playing or country-western music from another apartment or anything else — it feels as though it’s her that’s still, not just the air. She never sits down during our entire conversation; she just holds the baby, rocking him slightly, keeping her distance, literally and figuratively. She is wary of me, not to be caught off-guard.

“He was in the Marine Corps for a year, and then we got married,” she starts. “He was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, and that’s where we lived for about a year and a half. His first year was training at Camp Lejeune, then he was a security guard in Charleston, at the naval weapons facility. We moved here at the end of August last year. He’s stationed at Camp Pendleton, and he’s infantry, front line, machine gun. If they ever go anywhere, he’s front line.

“He’s in Okinawa now. He went with his company, but they’re doing a totally different thing. He’s with the camp guard now, kind of like the security guard. He just guards the base; he goes out into the town surrounding the base and guards the Marines out there. He left May 2. I don’t like the separation. It started in January, called division school. Sometimes they’d be gone a whole week at a time, wouldn’t even come home at night. They’d just come home for the weekends.” I ask her how it is being alone with the baby. “It’s kind of hard,” she confesses. “I’m lucky that he’s a good baby. I’m used to my husband coming home at night and taking the baby for a while and taking a break, but now it’s just us.

“He gets out in November; it will have been four years. He enlisted because his father was a Marine, and his father was a Marine, and he wasn’t ready to go to college yet. His father went in because he had to. It was wartime. He was in Vietnam. I guess Michael looked at the Army and he looked at the Navy, but the Marine Corps is the best, you know. That’s how they look at it.” She says this last with a smile that’s half proud, half affectionate. “That’s what he wanted to do, to see if he could handle it. It was just something he needed to do. When he gets out he’s going back to school. He’s going to community college for two years, then to university. He wants to be an elementary school teacher. I’m proud of him for going into the Marines. It’s not always easy, just like anything else. It’s hard for someone with a family, because, you know, I didn’t want to say that they don’t care, because they do care, but there are occasions. Some things are kind of hard to deal with.”

She pauses then, and when I ask her if she’s been in a position where she has worried about her husband physically, she answers hesitantly. “Well, he probably wouldn’t want me to tell you this. There’s a lot of stress, you know, and he has a problem now; they think he has an ulcer from all the stress and everything.” Another pause when I ask what the stress is from. “Work related,” she says carefully, as if that explains it all. “He’s a lance corporal, so he has to answer to a lot of people.” I try to help out. “You mean the stress of doing things right?” I ask, and she nods, seeming a little relieved that we’ve dodged that one. “Yeah, and you know, being gone, worrying about this little guy,” and she holds her son a little tighter. We talk about her son for a moment, then I try to steer her back to her husband and ask about that stress. She’s still hesitant.

“There’s a lot of mind games and a lot of answering to higher rank. I don’t want it to sound all bad, because there are other parts. It’s kind of hard to describe. If you’ve ever been in the military, they don’t just ask you a question, they just tell you to do it, and it’s not always in the nicest way. But that’s their job. It makes me worried, and I try not to freak out on my end, because that would make it worse for him." “So you just try to be supportive?” I say. “Yeah,” she says, a very clear dead end. Her expression hasn’t changed, but she’s not about to say more. We’ve reached a boundary.

It’s when I ask about her husband leaving that she gives me an example. “They left from Camp Pendleton on a bus. We had to be there at six in the morning to get all their things ready. They were done by 12, and then they had to sit there and wait till 6 o’clock that night to leave, but you couldn’t leave the camp. You couldn’t even go anywhere else on base, you just had to sit there. And there was one restaurant, and everyone, of course, wanted to go there. You basically just sat there and waited for your husband to leave for six hours. We left about 5, because he wanted to walk us to the car and put the baby in his car seat, because the way they did it, at 6 they just said okay, and they loaded the bus, and they said okay, turn around and tell them goodbye. You couldn’t walk your wife to the car, you just had to turn around and say goodbye, and then they had to watch you on the bus.

“He says it’s like, if something’s not broke the military’ll try to fix it,” she says. “It just doesn’t make sense. Like, he’ll go to work, and sometimes, this isn’t every day, but you know, he’ll call me. ‘What’d you do today?’ I’ll say. 'Oh, we played football.’ ‘Oh, is that what you did today?’ ‘Yeah, that’s why I got up at four in the morning, so I could play football.’ ” Then, very quickly, she adds, “That’s not every day,” and, almost apologetically, “it’s just mind games.” But when pushed, she says she doesn’t understand. “I guess in boot camp it’s to prepare you for a war situation. I don't really understand it, hut you just do it, and you can’t really ask questions. I mean, that’s what causes so much stress. You have to answer to someone at all times." She shrugs slightly. “It’s not always easy," she says, “just like anything else.”

I ask her about what kinds of marriages survive in the military. “You’ve gotta be real understanding, because they’ll come home at night and they’re stressed out from work, and they might not mean to take it out on you, but, you know, that’s what happens, and you’ve just gotta understand that it’s not you, it’s just work related, just like I guess with anyone else.” As for her marriage, she says they’re stronger as a result of his time in the service. “I don’t like him being away, but it’s brought us closer. I can’t imagine when he gets done with the Marine Corps how we’re gonna feel, because we won’t have that stress.” But she can imagine what they’ll do. She plans to leave San Diego over the summer, before her husband comes back, so that she can begin to get them settled back in Virginia. “I just decided since we’re leaving anyway, I’d just go on ahead,” she says. “A lot of wives just go home, back to their parents, while their husbands are gone, even when the husbands are still in the Marine Corps.” These women are often young, sometimes pregnant, sometimes with babies, and just don’t want to be alone, so they store their belongings and go home until their husbands return from deployment, then they return as well.

When I ask Heather if she’ll come back to San Diego so that she can welcome her husband home, she laughs. “He thinks we need to save our money and that I shouldn't fly out,” she says. “But I like to surprise him. I’ll probably fly out.” Until then. she’ll move back to Virginia, with the help of her father-in-law and a friend of his, who’ll come out to help. “I want to get his classes set up, and that starts in January and he gets back in December, and if we were moving there’d be no way he could start.” As for herself, she’s working on her medical transcription degree. She went to a community college for two years before coming to San Diego and has continued her studies at home.

And her hopes for five years? “He’ll be graduating by that time. I know we’re gonna have to move again probably, but I hope that in five years we’ll be where we’re gonna be for the rest of our lives. We’ll be in a city or a town that we’re both comfortable with. I want to be near my family, but not too close, where I can get to them if something’s wrong. Hopefully I’ll work at home doing medical transcription, at least until my son goes to preschool, and then I might go to work in a hospital.” I ask her if she’s ready to get out; it must be lonely. “Yeah,” she says and gives me one of her long looks as an answer.

I ask what advice she’d give to someone just starting out. The question seems a little ridiculous — she’s so young — and yet she’s so self-possessed that I’m interested in her answer. “I’m sure I’ve made mistakes,” she says. “Try and be as supportive as you can. Try to have a lot of communication. Once you find out what’s happened, then you can understand. And sometimes they can’t tell you what they’re doing. And then there’s nothing you can do really, you have to just go on with it.”

And then the baby becomes a bit more restless, and Heather’s manner and even look tell me that it’s time to go; she has nothing more to say. As I leave, I have the desire to tiptoe out and leave her life as undisturbed as I found it.

Becca’s and Alex’s husbands are stationed on a sub, duty that in the Navy might be the hardest on a marriage. The hours are long and unpredictable and inconsistent, and the deployments — usually six months at a time — are often without oral communication and with very little written communication. Those who know the military say they have it pretty tough, but Becca and Alex are fighters, women you’d want in your corner. Their conversation is lively and animated. As we talk, their kids interrupt with requests for juice and chips and an apple and the whereabouts of some toy, and Becca and Alex focus on them and stroke their hair as they answer, carrying on the kid conversation and the adult conversation simultaneously. Neighbors interrupt a couple of times as well, and the phone rings, and you hear people calling to each other outside, and everything feels more real than in the other homes. It also feels like the money’s a little tighter here. This is military housing, and the atmosphere is one of no frills. A budget.

Becca is 28, married 9 years, with two sons, one a toddler, one in preschool. She has dark-blue eyes and a sweet manner, and as we talk she’s even and direct. We sit at her kitchen table, which is stacked with huge bags of potato chips and hot dog buns. It’s the third of July, and she’s having a barbecue tomorrow. She’s recently Parted working outside the home as an office manager at a counseling center, and you get the feeling she’d be good at that. She’s articulate and organized in her thoughts, and her home, like the others, feels well run, shipshape. Even the kid art on the refrigerator is organized, not just stuck up there any old way. She’s also considerate, even maternal. I’m sitting by an open window, and when she notices goose bumps on my arms, she stands and shuts the window.

Becca’s husband is an electrician’s mate on a submarine — he operates the nuclear part of the boat — and works at a specialized rate. He works more hours and gets paid a little more as part of this assignment. He and Becca were high school sweethearts in a small town in California. He enlisted nine years ago, and he and Becca married shortly afterward. He was stationed in Florida for two years, then Idaho for two years, San Diego for a couple of years, then Northern California for two years, then back to San Diego. He gets out in late ’97 or early ’98. “We haven’t seen much,” she says, though she also says seeing places they wouldn’t see is one of the positives for the men. That and the shopping. “The men can buy things like jewelry and stereos at a lower cost.” And the positives for the wives? She’s quiet. “I’m thinking,” she says. “None come to mind. I guess I’m accustomed to moving around. Two years in one place now and I’m ready to go, ready for something new.”

Becca has been the ship’s ombudsman — a position usually filled by an enlisted man’s wife to act as liaison between the command and the families — and speaks with authority about potential tolls of military life. While all ships have someone acting as an ombudsman, she says, the need for that kind of help is greater on a sub. The ombudsman’s job is to help wives and families when the husbands are gone and includes things like handling emergencies in the family, helping with pay problems, and “organizing activities while the boat is gone to keep the wives busy." They make videotapes to send to the boat, for example, and put out a monthly newsletter. They organize activities for the kids, and they establish a phone tree to keep the wives updated with news from the boat.

Everything’s confidential on a sub, so the wives can’t talk about the boat’s comings and goings over the phone; it’s done in meetings. The wives know where their husbands are going, but they don’t talk much, if at all, during a six-month deployment. “They’re just gone,” Becca says, “underwater, with no communication.” The boat may or may not go into port, at which time the husbands may be able to call their wives. But even if the sub does go into port, the men try to keep the phone calls down. This, of course, isn’t limited to submarine duty. Another wife tells me that she’s known of people who’ve had phone bills from $1200 to $5000. And Becca says she remembers an eight-minute phone call from Thailand that cost more than $70. “The pay is pretty low in the military,” she says, “and when you don’t talk to your husband very much in a six-month period, you tend to want to talk to him for a long time when they’re finally able to call. It’s real difficult.”

One way the families do communicate with the men is through “family grams,” a limited-word message, like a telegram, that the wives give to the squadron, where someone looks it over before it’s transmitted over radio to the sub. “You just give the basics,” Becca says. “Anything that looks like it could be a code, they’ll ask you about. They don’t want you sending messages like, your grandmother died or that your mother’s ill. Being underwater, in such close quarters and for such long periods of time, they don’t want to upset the men. So you keep bad news to yourself. They don’t allow any.” For emergencies, the command will send a man home if they can; the command makes the call. So if the squadron sees anything funny in the message, they won’t send it. You might get a call, asking if there’s a problem.

It’s not only the frequent six-month separations that make sub duty difficult on a marriage, it’s hours when they’re not at sea as well. “The first year we were married, he was gone for 10 months out of those 12 months, if you put it all together,” Becca says. “He’d leave in the morning and come home the following day, coming and going constantly. His schedule now is that he goes to work at seven or eight and comes home between two and four, and he’s been doing that for one year. It’s been difficult for us to adjust to that, because I’ve been the one raising the kids, paying the bills, doing the home. So not only did that happen, did he come home and try to establish himself in the home, what his position in the family was going to be, but I decided I was going back to work because I couldn’t stand being home anymore, so it’s really been something we’ve had to work through.

“We got married so young — I was 18, and six months later I was pregnant. I didn’t have any freedom. I’m 28 years old, and I think, gosh, I haven’t done anything with me. That’s why I went back to work. I made the choice to marry him, so I should be doing what I need to do, staying at home with the kids, keeping the house. So all these years I had to be home; there was no father, I’m certainly not going to go to work and not let them have a mother too. So that created a lot of things in me. I just wasn’t happy, and it gets to the point where it strains the marriage. It strains everything.”

She goes back to the schedule then. “Sometimes they’re out for a week, then home for a weekend, in for two weeks, out for a couple of days, then out for a month, and back for a couple of weeks.” Her voice becomes strained. “I really didn’t know it would be like this. The schedules changed constantly for four and a half years. There was no consistency at all. He might work late nights but be told he’d have the weekend off, then he’d come home Friday night and say, ‘I have to work tomorrow.’ It was constant disappointment.” I ask her what qualities in her marriage she thinks have kept it strong. “Well, we’re still trying to work through that stuff. We’ve done marriage counseling, and now he’s actually doing some of it on his own, because it builds up.”

Someone knocks on the door then, and a neighbor leans into the kitchen and asks Becca if she’d like for her boys to come to her house to play. Becca introduces me and says, “Alex, how’d you like to tell this woman what you don’t like about the military?” and Alex is instantly interested. She has curly hair and freckles and is model-cute and energetic and likable. When she laughs, which is often, you want to laugh too. The facts of Alex’s life are more startling than the others’. She’s 24 and has two kids, aged four and two. She and her husband married because she got pregnant. He enlisted, she says, because the recruiter lied and because her husband wanted to get out of Nebraska. They’re moving in three weeks to New York, though she doesn’t mention this till late in our conversation, and even when she does, it’s tossed off as casually as a weekend trip.

She gives me a look and sits across from me at the kitchen table and starts right in. “Everything’s so darn political,” she says. “You saw the walls going up around here? I know this is petty and everything, but the officers get walls, and we get chainlink fences.” Becca and Alex live in military housing in San Diego, and they point outside and tell me that when I leave, I should take a look around. In military housing in areas like Tierrasanta and Pacific Beach, she says, the difference is obvious. “They upgrade for officers a lot more than they upgrade for enlisted,” Alex says. “The officers on the whole get a lot more. It’s so obviously different.” The military trains for and encourages that separation, of course, the rationale being that familiarity breeds contempt. Allow the enlisted men to become too friendly with the officers, and the officers lose respect and at least a degree of control. But in practical terms, it’s frustrating. Once Alex’s husband, an enlisted man, became friendly with an officer. “They had to hide the fact that they hunted together. It was all hush-hush.”

It’s Alex’s perception that sometimes the officers’ wives contribute to the separation unnecessarily. “There are lots of women who think they have their husband’s rank and therefore the right to treat people a certain way,” she says, and she goes on to give examples. “The XO’s [executive officer’s] wife said she wanted to invite me over someday when she was able to have enlisted wives over. ‘Right now I’m busy with officers’ wives,’ she said.

"And there was this mail drop. When the guys are overseas and someone you know is going over, you can schedule a mail drop. But you don’t do for one group what you can’t do for the entire group. So we found out someone was going over, and a message went out to everyone, and we said every family could send one manila envelope, because of the space and to keep things equal.” Then, Alex says, an officer’s wife got involved and changed the rules. Enlisted could send envelopes, officers’ families could send boxes. “It was just so blatant.” And to compound matters, the XO, in an attempt to pacify Alex, subsequently denied it. “But it had already happened,” Alex says. “I know this happened.” She leans toward me across Becca’s kitchen table. “And the thing is how awful it makes it for the guys. The officers don’t see that. The whole point of the ombudsman thing is to keep the wives at home happy, because if the wives at home are happy, the men on the boat are happy. They don’t see that. The officers’ wives have a real attitude. There’s a real difference. It’s almost an insult if someone thinks you’re an officer’s wife.”

And how do the two of them feel the military has treated them? Alex doesn’t miss a beat. “Poorly,” she says, her voice flat. “To our faces, they take us to lunch [as ombudsmen], give us plaques, talk about what great people we are, but when we’re gone, it doesn’t matter. Not well.”

I ask Alex if she had any idea of what the military would be like when she got married. “He was in when we met,” she says. “I didn’t know what it would be like. I’m pretty resourceful, pretty independent, and you just don’t think about it. You don’t think about the possibility that you might need support and you don’t have it. You just get it from your friends. By the time the guys get home at the end of the day, they are so burnt, they don’t want to talk about it. That’s the last thing they want to talk about. They’re brainwashed. And they can’t change anything or they feel they can’t. Like the smoking policy on the sub. They allow smoking on the sub, and not only that, but they allow smoking right under the air filtration system, so that the smoke is recycled into the air for the whole sub. My husband’s the type that hides all the ashtrays to discourage smoking. But here he is breathing this stuff. He’s got a smoker’s cough and he doesn’t smoke.”

So they don’t talk about it. “You don’t want to make any waves. You try to make things easier for him. The officer kept saying they were going to invite us to dinner to talk about some things, and I asked my husband, ‘Do you mind if I say what I think?’ ‘Yeah, I do,’ he said, ‘I don’t want you to.’

“The worst part is the hours, knowing that your husband is working basically for nothing. Everyone says we have free medical care, they train you, they think it’s free. Becca and I figured it out, and our husbands make $300 a month. They don’t compensate you.” It’s then she mentions that they’re moving to New York in three weeks, and when I remark that she certainly seems calm about it, she says, “I know that he can do some of the things he enjoys there, hunting and fishing, and it’s worth it, whatever we have to do, for him to be happier in his job.”

Alex and Becca’s kids are getting restless, and I tell them I’m about done. What if I were 20 and just marrying somebody in the military, I say, what would you tell me? “Get therapy,” Alex says, and she laughs. “And have patience.”

But Eve is the one who will break your heart. It’s unexpected because she has that same first-glance strength as the others; and, also like the others, she’s orderly and together and everything’s under control. We sit at her dining room table, and she offers me lunch, and she’s the one who takes our glasses for iced tea from their box, high in a cupboard. It’s not clear whether that’s where she always keeps them or whether she just hasn’t gotten around to unpacking them — she and her husband and kids have been in Southern California for only three months — but I suspect that that’s where they belong. Like the other women I’ve talked to, she’s neatly dressed (slacks and a blouse) and her hair is short and she’s wholesome-looking, clean-cut. But she also seems somehow vulnerable, and the softness of her voice and her expressions and intermittent tears give her story a sadness that hasn’t been present with the others.

Eve’s husband is a Navy corpsman — a medic, if you prefer — stationed at the naval hospital at Camp Pendleton, where he works in infection control. They’ve been married since 1978 and have three kids — a son who’s 15 and daughters who are 12 and 8. Eve and her husband, Mitch, met when her brother brought Mitch home to Michigan with him for a visit from Virginia, where he and Mitch were stationed on the same ship. Eve laughs as she tells the story; “It took me 18 years to figure out what my brother was good for,” she says. She was 17, Mitch 19. They flirted, and their first “real date” was when Eve, her brother, Mitch, and some others went to the movies, and Mitch “slid in beside me and bought my ticket. From that night on, I knew I was going to marry him.”

They dated mostly by letter, and she smiles when she mentions the letters. “Sometimes I want to write to him now; I can say things on paper that I can’t say in person, things that are too emotional.” They married 15 months later; and when I ask Eve if military life has been what she expected, she shrugs. “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know enough about it to be worried about it. I was born and raised in the same house, never moved. Mitch called when he got his orders and said, ‘We’re moving to California.’ I was sitting on the stairway and I bawled. I couldn’t imagine life away from home. I’d been to Texas one time and Virginia one time, to see Mitch. That’s all I’d done as far as traveling. I didn’t know what to expect. I loved him. My mom raised me to be at my husband’s side. Go with him to California. I couldn’t get much farther away.” Later, when I ask her if she wishes she’d known more at the start, she says, “I wouldn’t have wanted to know. It’s like having kids."

From Michigan, Eve and Mitch moved to California and spent a couple of years in Alameda. “We had our first child, a son, 13 months after we got married; and when he was about 8 months old, I went back to Michigan ahead of Mitch and got things set up, because he was getting out of the Navy after his four years of enlistment. He lasted about 16 months out of the Navy and then decided uh-uh, no, this isn’t it. We lived a quarter of a mile down the road from my folks. That was one of the factors; we could not live by them. I had grown too independent, and it just wasn’t working. So we went back in the Navy and went to Lemoore, California. And we stayed there for six years and had our daughters there and moved in 1988.

“We lived a year in Corvis, California, while Mitch was still stationed in Lemoore. He commuted back and forth. It was a school change for our kids and a church change and everything else. It was just good to go 40 miles away. At the end of ’89 we went to Fallon, Nevada, the desert. It was horrible at first. For five months I thought God made a mistake. He wasn’t going to leave us there, we really were going to go back to Corvis and our church family in Fresno. And when I caught on to the fact that we weren’t going anywhere, that we were staying, I grew to love it and we were fine. We were there for three years.

“Then we moved to Shelton, Washington, and my husband was stationed in Bremerton. But that was a 40-mile commute for him, but he was on sea duty, so he was going to be gone more than he was home anyway, so it really wasn’t a big deal. And that’s where we bought our first home on a couple of acres, and that’s where we were before we moved here in February. We’ll be here for three years.”

Eve’s husband is on a three-year rotation, three years of sea duty, then three years of shore duty. The sea duty includes a year of workups, where he’s gone more than he’s home, though he’s gone for only short periods of time, during which the men are trained on specific aspects of their duties. “He’ll be gone for two weeks, then home for a week. Gone for a month, then come home for three weeks. Then go for a couple of weeks again. Go and stay, back and forth, adjust and readjust. It’s the most difficult. They do that for 9 months to a year before deployment. They’re in and out, in and out, but they’re gone more than they’re home. And then you get that 6 months that they’re gone. So that comes to about 15 months out of three years, then they’re home for about a year, and then they’ll start working up again and go through that in-out, in-out, in-out stuff. Last time it worked out really well in that when they came home from deployment, they went into dry dock, so we had a whole year plus some where he wasn’t gone. He just went to work and came home every day. It was really kind of a bonus."

Where other women are guarded about the difficulties associated with what they call “the military lifestyle,” Eve is very open. When I ask what the hardest part about all the moving around is, she says, “Establishing myself in the community again, finding my place in the school system with the kids and volunteering and just getting to know what’s in the classroom, school. You have to prove yourself with every move. The most difficult is to get established in a church family, because that’s my life outside of my husband and my children, serving God and being patient as the church family gets to know who I am and where I stand in my beliefs and allowing me to get involved.”

“The moves are hard on you,” I say, a little surprised. The other wives I’ve talked to have been so nonchalant about all that uprooting, talking about how they’ve grown accustomed to it, how you get to see new places. “It’s devastating,” Eve says simply, with a directness that’s just stating a fact, no bitterness, no anger. “It’s horrible for me. Now my husband, he’ll start detaching himself six months before we leave. He’ll start breaking away from his friendships, from his commitments, on a social level, just start pulling away; and I hold on as tight as I can. I go to every function that’s going on to get together with my friends as often as I can, more often than normal, just because I know I won’t get to see them, and we’re just totally opposite in that whole thing. We’ve talked about it, because I tell him how much it frustrates me. He’ll say, ‘I won’t commit to this or that,’ and I’ll say, ‘Knock it off. We’re not gone yet, why act like you are?’ We’ve discussed it among military wives, and their husbands are the same way. They detach themselves emotionally and commitment-wise about six months prior to leaving, because that’s the way they handle it, the way they can do it, whereas I hold on as tight as I can.

“Every move is devastating, every single one of them. The least devastating was from Fallon to Washington, because that’s where we really wanted to be, and that was when we’d chosen to buy our first home, and it was close to in-laws for the first time other than Michigan. And yet still your heart sinks when you leave your friends."

Of all their moves, the most difficult has been the one here, to San Diego, “because of all of the changes we have to make," she says. “We’ve never lived in a place that was so expensive. I’m working outside the home for the first time in my married life, and I wasn’t ready to do that. I was in school in Washington to get my elementary education degree, so my plans have been put to a halt. We couldn’t afford my education, because we are making it paycheck to paycheck, nothing left over, certainly nothing left over to pay for tuition and books. The fact that I’m working outside the home is devastating to me. My husband and kids are probably adjusting to it more than I am.”

The reason for the financial pressure is, of course, the cost of living. “Utilities are two and a half times more here. In Washington we were paying 4 cents per kilowatt, here we’re paying 10 and 12 cents, and we’ve never had electric bills over a hundred dollars. Water and sewer and garbage, all of that just adds up. We weren’t prepared for it, had no idea.” Living on base would cut expenses, she says, but they don’t want to do that. “The housing wait list was four to five months, so we would have had to rent something until we got something on base. And we have a big dog, and we have our so-called freedom. When my husband comes home at night he is not still in the military, being dictated to as to when to mow his lawn, when to turn off his lights, how cool his house can be, how warm he can heat it. When you live in base housing, you are dictated by their housing rules. We’ve done that, but we’ve had enough living in our own home that we want our own home, our own way of living, not being dictated by the military 24 hours a day. We didn’t want to give that up. On base, you feel military 24 hours a day, and we’re just too far in our stage of life to live that anymore. So we’re making the sacrifice of me working outside the home and not getting my college education yet.”

Eve works at a video rental store, not exactly what she had in mind for the time when she did work outside the home. “The job was going to be a bonus,” she says, “just something on the side. I think I’m more intelligent and higher skilled than doing customer service in a video rental store. It’s very humbling for me, sometimes depressing, not what I want to do. I want to be home with my kids. I’m supposed to be scheduled at 20 hours a week, but this week it’ll be 35. I try to stay at 20, but the job isn’t allowing that right now. Most of the time I miss dinner. Three to four nights a week I’m gone. This week it’ll be seven. My 12-year-old daughter usually does the cooking. I try to-have things prepared or in the oven, ready to cook, otherwise I leave it up to her. She has taken on that responsibility, more than she wants to. And we split up the house chores; we’re on a weekly rotation: you have the kitchen this week, you have the bathroom, you have the dining room, you have the vacuuming, you have the floors, including my husband. All of us rotate weekly. I can’t do it all."

Her work schedule is hardest on her youngest. “She’ll come home and say, ‘Mom, do you have to work tonight?’ I’m working nights and weekends mostly, and if I tell her yes, her countenance just drops. ‘Oh, I wish you didn’t,’ she’ll say. She is the one who likes me with her at bedtime at night to pray with her as she goes to sleep. I don’t get home till 10:30 or 11:30, depending on the night of the week, so she’s already asleep. My others aren’t quite as verbal about it, but they’ll just kind of sigh whenever I have to go to work, or they’ll make little comments, ‘Oh, I thought you had tonight off,’ something like that. This just wasn’t my idea of when I got a job in the real world out there, that I would have to take so much time away.”

Putting her education aside wasn’t in the plan, but Eve is matter-of-fact about the difficulties. Her strong faith plays a large part in her outlook — “My responsibility on earth is to serve God and to raise my children to serve and love him. My responsibility is to reflect Christ in a quiet way so people see a difference in the outside world and not just in the church” — and it’s been a support. Her faith is a touchstone for the rest of her life, and she returns to it repeatedly as a point of reference. She cites it as the reason for her sense of peace about her husband’s physical safety. Around the time of Desert Shield, there was a chance that he might be sent overseas. “From the time he suggested that he might be sent, I was at complete peace. It was faith. The spirit of God filled me with the sense of whatever he does, wherever he goes, he’s fine.”

Which is why her difficulties with her son come as a surprise. If Eve’s unshakable faith in God (my phrase, not hers) is the backdrop for all she says, her feelings about her son are almost as present. She circles back to him and to the difficulties he’s had and her regrets about him repeatedly, and the pain in her voice and in her expression are unmistakable.

It starts early in our conversation, when I ask about how her kids have handled all the moving around. “My kids do really well,” she says. “My daughters especially have kept up with their friendships over the years, writing to each other, seeing each other. When we go from north to south, we stop, and they see the friends they’ve made over the years. My son, on the other hand, has had the most difficulty and probably is a lot like my husband in that the friendships are not real deep and he doesn’t hold on to them. And part of that has to do with his personality, and the other part is like a male thing. Letting go so that it doesn’t hurt so bad. But our oldest has had the most difficult time.”

Later she talks about her kids’ schooling, and her son comes up again, though she starts by talking about her youngest child. “She especially got the highest potential of all three children as far as being successful and really excelling in academics,” Eve says, and she describes her daughter’s home-schooling. “She got to where schooling was play, entertainment. With my other two, it was real labor. I wanted to make sure Christy got grounded. When she went into second grade, she wanted public school, so we put her in one in Washington state. In three weeks, there was nothing new to teach her. She knew it all. She was evaluated here as being gifted. I don’t think she is gifted, I think she’s had a better education. She skipped second grade, and they put her in third. She could have skipped third and gone to fourth.” The pride in Eve’s voice as she says all this is unmistakable. She goes on to say that her middle child is “doing fine, not a strong student, not poor, pretty average. She fits in and isn’t as challenged as she was in Washington, but her SAT scores are excellent, 90-some percentile.”

And then she turns to her son. “Our son, on the other hand, is our most difficult in every aspect, including education,” Eve says, and her voice loses its softness. “He’s in summer school because he failed a couple of classes. He failed some classes because of his poor social skills that we did not realize were a real problem until a couple of years ago. He has ADD — attention deficit disorder — a factor in his poor social skills from when he started school until this point. He has very poor social skills. That, in addition to other factors in his education. He’s struggling, and I don’t know if he’s going to graduate on time,” she says, her voice cracking. “That’s really discouraging. Yet he’s in the California school system, which will be easier for him to graduate from than the Washington school system. It’s good and it’s bad.”

We go on to other things then, but we come back to the son when I ask Eve what she hopes they’ll be doing five years from now. She answers that her husband will be retired and that she had hoped to be working as a teacher by then, but that doesn’t look possible. “Those hopes are dead for a while,” she says. “So I hope I’ll be finishing my education within a year of finishing. Our son will be functioning well in society. That’s putting it real mildly,” she says, and she looks at me when I start to smile, mistaking her frankness for understatement. “He has — ” she pauses, her voice tight, “problems. I hope he’ll be functioning well and employed. I suspected that maybe he was following in his dad and his grandfather’s footsteps — he’s retired Navy.

“Rick joined ROTC at the high school level when we lived in Washington, but he really wasn’t putting any effort into it. We came to find out that it was the ADD that was a factor in his inability to put a lot of effort into it, into any one subject, let alone ROTC. Right now we don’t know if all his problems are going to prevent him from joining the military. I don’t know what the kid’s goals in life are right now. It’s frustrating, because he’s getting to the age where he’s going to have to start making decisions and working toward those goals. I hoped in one aspect that he would join the military, and in another aspect, I thought, Oh, gee, this lifestyle is so hard at times, and you have to uproot and look how it affected him, the changes and the moves and all these things that he’s had to go through. It’s partly responsible for his problems. The extended support that you would have normally had — which isn’t normal anymore, but more normal than in military lifestyle — I think, maybe if we had lived closer to the family we would have had some wisdom and insight and support and guidance. That’s not to say we’re terrible parents, but maybe we could have been better.” Her voice cracks as she finishes.

“The oldest is the one you make the mistakes with. Obviously everybody has to have a first child. But I wish I could have had the third first, because it was with her that I had learned to be comfortable, and I did not push her to learn this skill and that skill. Even walking, it was like, okay, you’re my baby — and we knew she was the last one — I’m not going to push you to learn to walk. But she pushed herself. She was walking at ten months, it was just her drive to keep up with the siblings. Whereas the oldest one, you want to boast, you want to brag that this child has done this, and this child can do this, and all these things that they’ve learned at this early age. I kind of think that underlying push and that uncertainty of what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s normal and these other things we missed because you don’t have that extended family to just kind of calm you down. Sometimes I wonder if maybe we should have stuck it out, maybe with my husband’s family, not with mine, if it would have been different.

“You can’t change it, but I just somehow wish I could have had the third child first with all the confidence I had in having her. I don’t have any reservations on how I raised her or trained her or anything, whereas with my oldest I do. And who knows if those underlying problems are factors in his problems. Who knows. But that’s that.” She says all this with such clear regret in her voice that it’s painful to hear.

She talks about the effect of her husband’s first deployment, their longest separation — seven and a half months — on her son. “My son was five, and he went through this void that he felt in his dad leaving and not coming back, and he wouldn’t let me out of his sight. I couldn’t go to the bathroom, I couldn’t go across the street. It was horrible. My husband had done workups before deployment — he’d gone and come for six months before leaving — but when he left and didn’t come back, Rick felt that Mom would leave and not come back. And I was so young, and I got so frustrated and so tired with him.”

A few minutes later we hear the front door, and Rick comes into the kitchen, home from summer school. I expected a quasi-gang member, someone tough and difficult-looking, but as Rick stands at the kitchen counter and makes himself a sandwich, he mostly looks awkward and a little lost. He has short blond hair and wears baggy shorts and a huge T-shirt, and there’s an odd sweetness about him, at least to this stranger. But not to Eve, at least not today, judging from her no-nonsense tone of voice with him, as she asks him what his plans are and tells him no TV until he’s done his homework.

We come back to the difficulties of separations, and she talks about her husband’s third deployment. “I thought it would be easier because we’d been through it twice before. It was harder. We knew the ship would be going out and he’d be going on a six-month deployment. And we thought, We can do this. Of course we can do it, but it was a whole lot harder than I ever anticipated. A whole lot. The second one, I had our youngest child without him. She was five weeks old before he came home. That was a breeze compared to the third one.

“The third one was the hardest because we had a teenager, and you can’t just make decisions on what he’s going to have for dinner, and whether or not it’s healthy for him, and he needs to get to bed by eight o’clock to get his rest. The decisions you make for a teenager will affect the rest of his life sometimes, and if you can’t make that person-to-person contact and support with your husband and his father and say, Okay, this is the situation, what do we do about it? That’s a lot of pressure on the mom to decide that by herself. I don’t know how single moms do it. It’s me and my support is out there, but I can’t contact him.

“You only get to talk via phone maybe three times in a six-month period” — her voice becomes strained here, she’s fighting tears — “and when you do, you don’t want to talk about the important, stressful stuff, because you want it to be up. And so I really weighed the things I would tell him about on the phone, especially with Rick, because of his problems in school and social acceptance and things, and getting in trouble and the principal’s office and things, to where I would just talk about the good, the positive on the phone and deal with the negative in the letters, which is the opposite of what you really should be, because then you still don’t have the input. But you don’t want to waste your time on negative stuff.

“It’s another aspect of military lifestyle. It’s not just moves and adaptations that you have to make with your kids and the command and whatever. I used to say you have to be the mom and the dad. Well, you can’t. You have to be the mom and stick with that and help the kids understand that he’s gone, but he’s coming home, that he loves them, that he’s not leaving them because he wants to, but because his job says he has to. And this is why we have our home and our food and our clothes, because Dad’s working hard.”

And the homecomings? “They’re always less than what you expect them to be,” she says softly. “I’ve envisioned television homecomings, where the sailor comes off the ship, grabs his wife, folds her up in his arms, and just kisses her passionately. It’s never that way. Never. Mitch is not a publicly affectionate person, so he will walk up to me, give me a nice little kiss, on the pier among thousands of people, and the kids are there too. It’s always an unmet expectation of what you think a homecoming’s going to be, but it’s always very special. I can’t watch a homecoming on television news with the ship coming in to San Diego or wherever without crying. I’ve been there. You know the emotions.”

After a few more minutes of conversation, I pack up to go. As she walks me to the door, I look at photographs of her family, and I have the ridiculous impulse to tell her that everything will be all right. But Eve smiles as she opens the door, and I figure I’m projecting. She’s fine. She’ll be all right.

If I’ve ever met women who can take care of themselves, it’s these five women. So why do they make me so blue?

A lot is asked of them, even now, in what we call “peacetime,” when the risk of physical danger is relatively low. They’re frequently called upon to be both mother and father to their children, raising their kids around that “cyclical loss of the father.” They’re trying hard to be supportive of their husbands, though they may not like how their husbands are treated. And they are asked — not in so many words, but the request is clear — to keep silent about what they don’t like or understand, or at least to not ask too many questions.

And they’re forced to be separated from their husbands for long periods of time on a regular basis. I hear Eve, her voice cracking when I ask her what the worst part of being separated is. “Worst part,” she echoes, and then she begins to cry and is silent for a few moments, trying to compose herself. “I want to tell you this,” she says, “it’s just real emotional.”

Another few moments, and then, as if to explain her tears, she says, “Well, this is my life, you know. This is what I’ve lived for for 16 years, and lived with,” and then she answers the question. “The loneliness. I can surround myself with my kids and their activities and be the supermom that the world says you are if you do this, that, and everything else, and maintain your sanity at the same time. I can surround myself with them, but it doesn’t fill. I don’t like my best friend being gone.”

And just behind all those difficulties — the separations, the challenges of being both mom and dad, the low pay, the long hours, the emotional expense — is the enormity of what is asked of their husbands, something the wives don’t articulate much. Except for Kathleen, of course, solid, practical, down-to-earth Kathleen, voicing what’s often left unsaid, as matter-of-fact as ever, “It’s a different way of life. There are some similarities with other jobs, but a civilian doesn’t have the threat of going to war, and we do. People say, 'Oh, you get your medical benefits for free.’ No, we really don’t get them for free. My husband has to go fight. And he might give a life. We have the possibility of having our husband or wife going to war. There’s always the possibility.”

The names of the women and their husbands and children in this story have been changed.

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