As the talk of war with Iraq intensifies, U.S. military forces are awaiting the call to duty. Since last year's terrorist attacks, the Pentagon has accelerated deployments and increased the pace of training. Military families feel a sense of apprehension as the Bush Administration prepares for action.
Naval deployments are always difficult for military families… and the one earlier this month was no exception for some 8,000 sailors based in San Diego. An aircraft carrier and its battle group were leaving for six-month deployments to the Persian Gulf. On a Navy pier, dozens of family members, clutching signs and bundled-up kids, gathered to say goodbye to loved ones aboard the Destroyers Higgins and Milius.
Deep within the 150-meter-long Milius, Chief Warrant Officer Tracy Wells was making final preparations before departing. She's a combat systems officer and has been in the Navy for 19 years. She has mixed feelings about leaving. "It's harder when you're married and you've got kids...a lot more people to leave behind and say goodbye to," she said.
Tracy Wells says this deployment is tougher than her previous assignments because she knows they might face a war with Iraq. She doesn't want her three children or husband to be worried. But her family is used to this. She's married to another sailor, Senior Chief Phillip Wells. For the next six months he will be a single-dad... single-handedly raising the kids: making dinners, going to school events and helping with homework.
Phillip Wells has been in the Navy for 22 years, and he says It's a tough balancing act. In a typical year he'll only spend a total of four months with his wife. "Thick and thin, as you say in your marriage vows, is taken to extremes in the military," said Tracy Wells. "There are some thick times and there are some very thin times. I mean, we've been close to saying goodbye to each other, but found our way back and figured out how to make it work."
About half of the nation's 1.4 million service members are married and most have children. Less than three percent are like the Wells: married to someone else in the military. The Navy is accommodating. When she's out to sea, he's assigned to shore duty. He's able to communicate almost daily with his wife using email… but limits what he tells her. "You try to be very careful about what we say to each other that the other one can't fix," said Phillip Wells. "There's no reason in being pre-occupied on deployment with beating yourself up about, well I would have done this, or I wished I was there to fix that. Then you just get guilt-ridden with what you're doing and that's not what we want to do."
Thirteen-year-old Jacqui Wells misses her mom when she's at sea and says it's tough to have one parent routinely absent. "It can be really hard at times, because sometimes you need to talk to one parent but the right parent isn't there to talk to," she said. "And when you don't have that parent to talk to, it can be extremely difficult."
The Navy has increased programs to make it easier for sailors and their families. At the Fleet and Family Support Center in San Diego, deployment specialists like Theresa Misenko hold classes nearly every day on topics ranging from financial management to coping with stress. "We're finding that as the stress of balancing the career and the family becomes greater, the sailors are more open to getting assistance before there is a problem," said Theresa Misenko.
The support center is one of several hundred around the world that cater to Navy families. Other military branches have similar programs. Ms. Misenko says the Navy's retention rate has improved in the last few years, in part because of new programs like single-parent survival training and a military spouse employment class that helps fine-tune resumes for families that are frequently transferred. She says as families learn about the stress they're under, the more control they can have over the situation. "And that's the thing that escapes most military families... somebody else other than us is deciding where we live, what mission we'll be on, how long we'll be separated," she said. "But if you can snatch back some of that control with information then you feel better about the whole thing."
Military families have other resources, including a website called CINCHOUSE.com… which stands for Commander in Chief of the House. Sandra Aldridge helps run the site and sponsors informal meetings to discuss how to make it easier when service members return from deployment. "The children are bigger," said Sandra Aldrige. "There may have been some major issues: moving, or purchases, or even if you paint the house. Your husband walks in and says 'oh, do I live here?' So that is a total readjustment."
Back aboard the Destroyer Milius, Chief Warrant Officer Tracy Wells says the Navy is a much better service to work for than it was ten or even five years ago. "The focus was completely on the mission," said Tracy Wells. "Now they understand that families are a part of the mission and that to have a well-prepared force, you have to have that support at home and that the families are a part of us and we really focus on taking care of them now. It makes a huge difference."
But it's still not easy. As the Milius eases away from the pier there are few dry eyes as moms, dads and kids wave goodbye to loved ones they won't see again for at least six months.
In Part 2, a report from Santa Margarita Elementary School on Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego… where support is needed most, for the youngest in military families.