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Absence of Mates Makes Navy Wives Grow Stronger

March 19, 1986|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

CHULA VISTA — 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?

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