Marine Master Sgt. George Spear, a single father, bought his son a souvenir T-shirt on a recent Louisiana trip. Once home, he realized that he mistakenly had bought one reading: “My mother went to New Orleans and all I got was this stinking shirt.”
Spear threw it in the trash. His son, Brian, 17, found it and teased him--"Dad, don’t you know who you are?”
These days, Spear is finding out. A Marine Corps journalist based at Camp Pendleton, he left Thursday for the Mideast.
He is a member of a new breed of Marine--single parents. For this group, rapid deployment to the Persian Gulf posed questions that critics traditionally have aimed at women: Are they ready for action? And what about the kids?
Without hesitation, Spear says every Marine--single or not--is prepared. Marine children are ready for their parents’ abrupt departure.
Still, for them, and for thousands of other military families, the recent U.S. deployment in the Persian Gulf has only underscored a familiar reality. Life with the armed services can be hard not only on soldiers but on their kin, too.
In the current crisis, Spear volunteered to go. When he and a colleague stood before their colonel, they realized that one of them would go. Spear looked at his colleague, a married man with young children. Spear volunteered.
“I am an old war horse,” explained the 40-year-old Alabama native, who has been a Marine for almost 22 years and served in Vietnam.
But trying to explain his actions to Brian, who has learning disabilities, was harder. That night, Spear returned to his Oceanside home with the usual fast-food dinner for two. Brian skateboarded up to meet his dad, seemingly sensing that something was wrong. “I said it wasn’t something he had done, but something I had done,” Spear said.
He doesn’t like to talk about being separated from Brian. It makes his eyes well with tears. And even today, crying doesn’t seem macho.
“It’s probably the loneliest moment in a Marine’s life when he has to turn his kids loose,” he said. “It’s like opening up your chest and pulling out your heart.”
Spear sat down with Brian, showed him Kuwait on a map, explained to his son that he would live with Spear’s mother and go to school in Cullman, Ala. And he tried to make Brian understand how his life is going to change.
Cullman is a tiny town and the grandmother with whom he will live has few of what Brian regards as modern necessities, such as cable television.
In the days before he left, Spear took care of essentials.
“Imagine walking out of your house,” he said, “not knowing when you are coming back. Where do you put the car? Do you keep the cable TV? Discontinue the paper? What about the lawn? And the electricity? Do you need to keep the phone? My main concern is the doggone bills. It’s quite an ordeal.
“All of a sudden, you have to sever every connection--with your family, society, friends. We know that’s a professional hazard, that if we are called we have got to be ready. Physically, we are prepared, but emotionally you are vulnerable. When you leave flesh and blood behind, it tears at you.”
As he drove Brian to the airport, the boy kept asking, “Are you going to be OK, Dad?”
Spear kept remembering how, after he had split with his wife and had taken Brian, then 3, to live with his mother, Brian had kept screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Don’t leave me, Daddy!”
But this separation was different. “This time,” Spear said, “he wasn’t screaming it, but he was feeling it.”
And this time, Spear was fighting tears. He was sure Brian would come unhinged if he saw his dad cry. He hugged his boy, walked 10 steps from the gate, smiled and waved. Brian, looking hesitant, boarded the plane. Tears streamed down Spear’s face as he drove from the airport.
He went home and wept.
“Being a Marine,” he said, “is not as simple as it used to be.”
“If the Army had wanted you to have a wife, they would have issued you one!”
Once, it was more than Army bombast--enlisted men needed permission to marry. Marriage was forbidden in the lowest ranks.
Today, the Armed Forces must not only accommodate wives--often from another country and culture--but husbands of women in the military. (As of 1989, there were 229,000 women in the military, 10.8% of the total, a number that has increased dramatically since the male draft ended in 1973 and the all-volunteer force began.)
In a 1989 report, “Families in the Army,” the RAND Corp. identified other trends. More than half of today’s Army wives have paid jobs; one in 10 Army personnel are members of families in which both partners are on active duty; there are more single-parent families headed by a woman.
Daniel and Nancy Perez, a Navy family, are more traditional. They got engaged two weeks after her high school graduation. Then, he shipped out. When he returned from a six-month cruise, they were married. That was 11 years ago. She was 18; he was 22.
On June 23, Perez, a chief petty officer aboard the carrier Independence, left on a routine five-month cruise. Earlier this month, she heard on the news that, as part of the Mideast crisis, his ship had been sent to the Gulf of Oman. She has no idea when he may come home.
Nancy Perez knew nothing about Navy life before meeting Daniel, a New Year’s Eve blind date arranged by their mothers. She learned fast. When their daughter, Kristin, now 7, was two weeks old, he went to sea for seven months.
“That one was really rough,” she says. She and Kristin came to California to stay with her parents. “We left our apartment in Virginia with all of our stuff in it.” It was burglarized. “I had to fly back and take care of that.”
Today, she takes separations in stride, reminding herself, “Hey, you’ve just got to keep on living.” Her job in the Antelope Valley Bank boosts their income and helps time pass.
About a week before Daniel left this time, they saw a house they liked in Sun City. She has bought it. Meanwhile, she and Kristin are saving for the house by living with her parents near Palmdale.
When he returns, he will commute from Sun City to his home base, Coronado. The cost of San Diego homes is prohibitive for them--and they prefer not to live in Navy housing: “He doesn’t want to have to work and come home to it, too.”
Kristin will begin school next month near her grandparents’ home and will transfer to a Sun City school in December, when the house will be finished. “It’s going to be hard on her,” Nancy says, “but she’s really strong. She’s not a wimpy little kid.”
Perez writes to Nancy and Kristin. “She can’t finish his letters,” Nancy says. “She comes out crying. He writes her some really good letters, explaining what’s happening. He explained to her that there was some fighting going on and the United States was trying to help.”
She just takes things “day by day.” She sends him care packages, with news clippings, candy and cookies. “I feel pretty safe that he’s on a ship,” she says. “I think I would be dying if he was in the Army or the Marines.”
At Ft. Irwin, the Army’s National Training Center in the Mojave Desert, a Mexican-born 4-foot-11 soldier in camouflage fatigues and combat boots is helping soldiers and families through the current crisis, just as she helps them through the crises of everyday life. She is Col. Pilar Franco, USA, a doctor who is chief of community mental health service.
“Families become very alarmed and concerned when there’s a possibility of war,” she says.
In times of peace, she deals with other family matters, “sometimes serious things like spouse abuse, child abuse. We do need the soldiers to be violent in the battlefield . . . but some of them don’t have clear boundaries.” This is not unique to the military, she says, but “soldiers are getting the idea that this is something that’s not acceptable.”
“Going to war,” she says, is the No. 1 concern of wives. Another is training accidents, maybe a chopper that goes down.
There are problems, too, stemming from loneliness. “Wherever soldiers go, they find wives,” Franco says. Many of them are from distant lands with far different cultures. Many such marriages are doomed to fail.
“Usually it’s our younger soldiers,” she says, “and they marry someone just as young and immature and unskilled. They find out marriage is more than just liking each other and having sex. Many of them don’t even understand each other” because the woman speaks limited English.
Some of the women, she notes, come from countries where “prostitution is an honorable, respectable way of making a living.” Perhaps they were bought as brides at a dance hall. They have Hollywood visions of America--two cars in every garage, big houses. Instead, “they come and find the squalor in which a soldier below the poverty line lives here. They need money and they want to work. And guess what they want to work at.”
Even where conflicting cultures are not a factor in military marriages, youth and poverty pose severe strains. Franco paints a typical picture: “The wife is 17, pregnant, away from her home with no phone, living in a trailer park somewhere, scared to death. He takes the only vehicle. She feels like a prisoner.”
Only 10% of Ft. Irwin’s families live off post. There is a military wife who serves as mayor for these families, just as on post, there is a wife serving as mayor for each of the housing zones. There is an outreach program providing van transportation to the PX or the hospital. The volunteer Army Community Service supplies baby carriages, pots and pans and children’s clothing to needy newcomers.
It is noteworthy that in today’s Army, spouses and children no longer are called dependents but family members, which is thought psychologically preferable.
Indeed, Franco says, military children tend to be “more resilient” than their civilian counterparts. When they come to her for counsel, it is apt to be to express fears that their father is going to be killed or that they dare not make waves lest he lose his job.
And, faced with long separations, many military wives grow strong. Sometimes that, too, creates domestic conflict. Says Franco: “He comes back and wants to take over again. But she’s become more capable and she’s not going to give up the skills she’s learned” and the self-esteem that goes with that.
For families with no built-in support system, a personal crisis like deployment of a son or daughter to the Mideast can be a frighteningly lonely experience.
Diana Contatore, a marketing professional who lives in Playa del Rey, is a soldier’s mother. Her only child, 2nd Lt. Daniel R. Kral, 23, stationed at Ft. Hood, Tex., with the 2nd Armored Division, called about two weeks ago to say he would be shipping out to the Middle East.
At first, she says, she “cried nonstop.” To her, Kral is still “my little boy.” She had been a single parent from the time he was 6. She describes Kral, a career military man, as “very devoted to the Army and to his men and to his country. I respect him a lot for the way he feels.”
Still, she’s sick with worry. She admits, “If I could grab him and run away with him, I would do it. But Danny wouldn’t like that. Danny is not someone who runs away.”
She and her husband of a year visited her son at Ft. Hood recently to help shut up his apartment. “I also had to arrange to be his power of attorney,” she says. “That’s what blew me away.”
Long before women wore uniforms, there was a special breed called military wives.
Officers’ wives, in particular, had a clearly defined role. They were helpmates, whose conduct could make or break a husband’s career. They were not to be controversial. They were to be full-time homemakers, perfect hostesses, unflappable mothers.
That traditional world of military wives--one largely unchanged until the 1980s--is described by Bonnie Domrose Stone, wife of a retired Navy chief, and Betty Alt, wife of an Air Force colonel, in their new book, “Uncle Sam’s Brides.”
Stone, who grew up in Los Angeles and lives in Lancaster, reared three sons while moving from pillar to post during 20 years as a Navy wife. She said in an interview that she would not do it again by choice. “You can’t choose where you live, where your kids go to school or who your friends are going to be. That’s all determined by the man you marry.”
Stone writes: “The military officer’s wife is expected to play the part of dress-up Barbie to his GI Joe.”
Interviewing military wives for the book, she found that loneliness and what she calls the “Berlin Wall” that exists between officers’ wives and enlisted men’s wives--the caste system--were most often mentioned as negatives.
Stone and Alt also found that economic hardship is a way of life for many in the military. Because enlisted men and their families often live at poverty level, more than $11 million in food stamps were redeemed in 1988 at military commissaries, they learned.
Basic pay for active duty military personnel starts at about $700 a month for the lowest enlisted rank; a private makes about $800, a corporal about $900, a sergeant about $1,100, a master sergeant just over $2,000. Until recent years, there was no mandate for a military wife to receive any part of her husband’s retirement benefits in case of divorce.
For Bonnie Stone, the “biggest crisis” as a Navy wife was early in her pregnancy with her youngest son, Paul, now 21. Stone caught German measles from her middle son, and, in the face of warnings from doctors that the fetus might be damaged, she and her husband decided against an abortion.
“Then he left” for sea duty, she says, “and I was left to carry through the pregnancy.” Paul was born deaf.
Times change, and the military with them. Stone sees more change coming as the “old guard” dies off and women’s liberation and economic necessity dictate a different role for military wives.
Coffees and teas, with officers’ wives in proper white gloves and hats, are only a memory. To a new generation of wives, they seem as quaint as the once-mandatory courtesy call on senior officers, complete with engraved his-and-hers calling cards.
Dennis and Connie Duffey represent a new generation of military families.
They married in 1979, the summer of their graduation from Siena College, a Catholic school near Albany, N.Y. In college, he joined the Army ROTC. So did she.
As newlyweds, they were both second lieutenants, he in flight school at Ft. Rucker, Ala., she at Ft. Bragg, N.C. But when she became pregnant--an unplanned pregnancy--in fall, 1980, they decided that, as she puts it, “two of us in the military was not going to hack it. Our priority was our children.” She resigned, then an option.
In 11 years of marriage, the Duffeys have moved six times, including more than two years in Seoul, Korea. They now live on post at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, an isolated enclave outside of Barstow in the Mojave Desert. Dennis Duffey, a major and a helicopter pilot, is commander of the 247th Medical Detachment. The family includes Maureen, 9, and Patrick, 3, who was born in Korea.
Duffey is a career Army man. A college biology major, he chose to be a Medivac pilot so as to “help injured soldiers, as opposed to killing people.”
The Duffeys know from experience that a crisis deployment could happen with little notice. In October, 1983, he was told something secret was in the works. Three days later, he was on a plane bound for Grenada, where he spent three months.
It was Thanksgiving before she and Dennis talked, she calling from a communications tent at Ft. Bragg, he answering on a field telephone. He recalls the conversation: “How’re you doing? Over. I love you. Over. . . .”
The Duffeys are outgoing people, quick to laugh, respectful of one another’s opinions and of the right to voice them. They exchange affectionate repartee.
The Duffeys share a conviction that Army life is what you make of it. In Seoul, she kept the books for an officers’ wives’ club duty-free shop, which grossed more than $2 million a year and contributed to American and Korean charities. She learned silk embroidery and created the framed tapestry that hangs in their quarters. And she learned to like kimchi, a spicy Korean cabbage.
Like Army posts around the world, Ft. Irwin is a self-contained community with a Post Exchange, commissary, bowling alley, movie theater, chapels and a hospital. Maureen goes to the on-post school, where Connie is a substitute teacher. Patrick is dropped at an on-post day care home.
She belongs to the officers’ wives club and goes to luncheons but has not signed up for any fall activities, such as bridge, Cajun cooking or quilting.
She sees her role as Dennis’s wife as an “unspoken assignment.” But, she emphasizes, whatever she does, or doesn’t do, “certainly doesn’t reflect on his efficiency report.”
She has seen significant changes in military family life in the last decade. Community involvement is more of a priority among wives; strictly social gatherings have largely given way to fund-raisers for causes such as holiday food baskets for soldiers’ families.
If she were giving advice to a new military wife, Connie Duffey says, she would tell her, first, to “get to know the other wives in the unit” and “to know what your husband does.”
Her other advice to a military wife: “Always remember that this duty station is not where you’ll spend the rest of your life.”