Absence of Mates Makes Navy Wives Grow Stronger

Times Staff Writer

Jan Stanard has been a Navy wife for 21 years. She has lived in Virginia ("several times"), Michigan, California and the rain-splattered state of Washington. She has done so with an asthmatic daughter, a son whose friends sometimes ask if he has a father, and a cat that recently celebrated its 14th birthday.

Her husband is the senior enlisted man on the guided missile cruiser Long Beach, docked at North Island Naval Air Station. The Long Beach is a nuclear-powered vessel; Stanard's husband is a nuclear machinist's mate. His deployments (periods away at sea) have numbered 11, most for six months, a few for as long as 10.

During those times, Stanard, 38, has earned a hard-won independence. She has played a loving hand at several roles--"mother, father, nursemaid, friend." She has cultivated the kind of relationship with her children, ages 16 and 15, that has given them longevity and consistency in the face of isolation and pain--inevitable side effects of a transient life style.

"The positive aspects?" she said. She searched her mind for a second, then said in a slow, measured voice, "The positive is, it's made me stronger. The three of us learn to depend on each other with Dad not around. We fix the car, the washing machine, do the repairs when he leaves.

"With my daughter being sick, a lot of times I've had to admit her to a hospital in a moment's notice. I've made big decisions and done so quickly. I've had to grow up--in a hurry."

Growing up in a hurry is a task that Navy families have to master--or suffer the consequences of not being able to cope emotionally. America in the 1980s is a mobile society. Nowhere is mobility more apparent than in military homes.

A Prime Concern

Dr. Sidney Werkman is well aware of the problems of mobile and military families. Werkman is chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. He recently came to San Diego to talk with other physicians about the problems of such families. Transience--and its blistering side effects--was a prime concern.

"The United States," Werkman said in an interview, "is now the most mobile country in the world. We're sort of the inventor of mobility. We have more airports and more mobility than any society in history.

"Our level of mobility is just extraordinary. The average person in England moves four times in the course of a life. In our country the average is nine ."

Mobility usually affects people in one of two ways, said Werkman, who has worked for years with the U.S. State Department and the Peace Corps.

"On the one hand, you have the ones who make it, who even thrive," he said. "They become highly effective, highly adaptable people. You find others who drop out, often becoming psychiatric casualties."

Capt. Jack Hodgens is coordinator of Navy Family Services in San Diego, where more than 250,000 officers and enlisted men currently serve on active duty. Hodgens has two children. After 40 years in the Navy, he understands the problems of separation and loss, of not being there for the little things. The best moments in a Navy life? Being on a ship pulling in, he said, seeing a wife and children waving from the shore. The worst moments? Seeing them cry, he said, as the ship pulls away, then having to live with that feeling for months.

Hodgens has missed Thanksgivings and Christmases and more birthdays than he can count. He once stayed at sea longer than usual to avoid moving the family. His son wanted to graduate from the school he had happily attended for three years. The thought of switching to a new school his senior year and not graduating with his class upset his son. Though his own emotions resisted, and his homesickness deepened, Hodgens relented.

He knows what Stanard means in saying she's been a father, too. His wife had to be the father figure at football and soccer games, meaning she learned the terminology and developed the interest merely to ensure her son never felt rejected.

Plenty of Navy children and families have felt rejected, Hodgens said, and in 1981, the Navy got worried. It worried about morale, about drugs, about the debts its sailors ran up for housing, food, furniture and the like. It found San Diego one of the highest-priced cities in the country for housing. San Diego, a so-called Navy paradise, didn't seem so eager to give a sailor a break on real estate--and still doesn't, officers say. (In a recent Navy survey, 64% cited housing as a serious problem.)

The Navy got concerned, Hodgens said, about fallout from a necessary but demanding life style. For these and a fleet of other reasons, counseling programs, family cruises and seminars on finance were instituted immediately.

What to Do About Moves?

One problem continually coming up is the obvious and inevitable--what can be done about moves?

In the words of some officers, feminism hasn't eased the problem. Women want more of a say in their own lives; they're not content to play a long-suffering, traditional role, assuming most of the duties of the family, while waiting for the husband's return.

Economic necessity now demands that Navy wives work, whether they want to or not. Other necessities--keeping the family together--often has such wives taking on "Superwoman" responsibilities. In that sense, they share a bond with women in the country at large.

"The burden of the life falls on the woman," said Carol Jaskunas, a social worker with Navy Family Services. Jaskunas is married to an officer on board a submarine, and with two small children is hardly a stranger to the perils of deployment.

Attitude, she said, is the dividing line.

Jaskunas had two babies with her husband at sea. She moved from a tranquil, happy life in Hawaii to San Diego, a city she hadn't prepared for. (Because she liked Hawaii so intensely, she "denied" the reality of leaving.) She learned about attitude "the hard way."

It is one she tries to impart to other Navy wives in her role as social worker. She tells them that if they feel negative about deployment, the mood will undoubtedly hurt the children. If the wife shows resistance to the move--which is, after all, part of the life the couple have chosen--readjustment will hardly be a cakewalk.

It is attitude, she said, that gives a woman the opportunity to rise above the largely imagined slight of an employer showing favoritism to someone else, for fear that the military wife will pick up and leave. Such discrimination happened often in the past, she said, but it isn't as typical anymore.

Attitude also extends to the husband, she said. Couples should know that moves and deployments are necessary evils of Navy life and plan accordingly, she said, with "savings and expectations."

Dr. James Chandler is a psychiatrist at Balboa Naval Hospital. He said it's no secret that military families are "subject to special stresses. We think there's a fairly high incidence of disruption and difficulty. Mobility, constant change in friendships, prolonged periods of father absence--it's all there."

Asked what families can do to prepare for moves, Chandler sighed and said, "Oh, gosh." After a few moments, he admitted "lots of cognitive planning" is essential--lining up acquaintances and housing in new cities, establishing a "safety net" of friendship and support long before moving vans pull out of a driveway.

Expect Trouble

If planning doesn't take place or fails, expect a myriad of problems, he said: "Childhood and adolescent depression, difficulties in school, substance-abuse problems. We see more clinical depression (in military families) than just about any group."

The absent-father syndrome, as some call it, is one cause of depression. Hodgens said one of the worst aspects of lengthy deployment is an officer coming home, expecting to treat wife and children as though they were deck hands taking orders. Often it's difficult for such men to "unwind from the Navy role," he said, and remember he's a father, not a commander.

"You come home and they say, 'Dad, we're doing things a little bit different now.' It puts you right in your place," he said. "Therein lies the whole challenge."

"The father," said Werkman, "invests so much time . . . in the military. He comes home, and the mother has completely taken over the rearing of the family. And she's had to--who else would do it? All the intimacy, all the games, are known by the mother and children. The father doesn't fit in, and a lot of times turns to jealousy and resentment or lapses further into the military--away from the family."

At some point, the father may have to confront a child growing bitter over too many moves, of missing out on friendships, of having tender romances cut short before their time. Such children, in Werkman's words, often develop bonds to "things" rather than people--"Tape recorders, toys, their own room. They get cozy with life's non-essentials."

They also get the feeling, he said, that life operates at the whim of fate.

"Theirs is a world of chance," he said. "They have the feeling of being out of control, helpless and adrift. Theirs is a sea of powerlessness, nothingness. They tend not to make plans in life but instead go . . . with the wind."

If that comes across as melodramatic, Jan Stanard, who says she's a happily married Navy wife, in love with the life and people she meets, once developed a halcyon bond with a certain friend. Her former "best" friend, the kind that comes along once in a lifetime, moved to Italy, leaving behind a heartbroken soul.

"Our friendship was so special," she said. "It was so darn tough to let go. After that I said never again. Since, I just haven't had that kind of friend."

She's endured other disappointments. She seldom, if ever, reunites with a twin sister. She often pines for Michigan, her birthplace and the one place she dimly calls home. She misses the cold, the folks back home and the sense of past she believes everyone needs.

Meanwhile, she grows close to the children, to a cat, to the husband they miss when sad departures come again. Having each other is the one thing they know. Because of that, her children have made some decisions.

As 15-year-old Tonya said: "When I grow up, I'm gonna stay, you know, like in one spot . I'm not gonna move. I'm tired of moving, of not getting to keep . . . a single friend. That doesn't seem right, does it?"

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World