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Marriage of Inconvenience : Overseas Assignments Leave Sailors' Wives Coping With the Navy Blues

October 22, 1987|ELIZABETH TURNER | Times Staff Writer

The statue near the entrance to the Seabee base in Port Hueneme portrays an age-old Navy story:

The strong sailor stands tall, shoulders squared. His stoic, stone face is turned away from his mate, presumably toward that foreign shore awaiting him. The woman, a picture of grief, slumps, her eyes cast at her feet.

But the true story is that most Navy wives feel relieved when their husbands go off to sea, counselors who have studied enforced separation say. In fact, many Navy wives feel more like throwing punches than kisses at their husbands right before they leave, and many relate that homecoming is more stressful than blissful.

Counseling Programs

These are not signs of marital discord, but means to cope with the stresses of long separation, says Kathleen Logan, a Navy wife for 16 years and a marriage and family counselor in Norfolk, Va. Her studies have been integrated into Navy counseling programs across the country. Earlier this year, Logan's studies on the changes in Navy wives' behavior during long separations from their husbands were published in Naval Institute Proceedings, a monthly journal that delves into technical exotica involving submarine tactics or the balance of power.

She explored a set of contradictory, sometimes overpowering, feelings known as "the deployment syndrome" or, in everyday Navy parlance, "the cruise blues"--a phenomenon familiar to the 32,000 active-duty Navy families in Ventura County.

The latest group cast into domestic limbo are the 65 wives of the "Operation Deepfreeze" squadron, which embarked this month from Point Mugu for a 5 1/2-month tour in Antarctica. And the five Seabee battalions at Port Hueneme, which leave for stretches of from seven to eight months, are in a virtually continual cycle of arrival and departure.

Blues Are Inherent

The blues are built into the system.

Navy members generally rotate between three years of shore duty and three years of sea duty. Although sea duty doesn't necessarily entail time aboard a ship, it does mean being away from home for three to nine months at a crack.

Navy wives whose husbands are gone for such long periods can expect to go through a series of emotional stages that are often baffling, said Logan, who studied 341 wives married to seagoing naval personnel. Her work on the subject and the Navy's use of it mark a change in official attitudes toward domestic problems that can affect on-the-job performance.

Women Sailors Aboard

Most of the study concerns males and their spouses, even though women sailors are now accepted in the Navy and serve on noncombat ships.

While there are a few women deployed with the men in Antarctica, they are not viewed as a serious threat by Navy wives.

Since the end of World War II, the Navy has evolved from a "single man's force to a married man's force," said Meg Falk, head of the Navy's Family Service Center headquarters in Washington.

Many of the Navy's family programs were developed after a 1981 study showing "spouse satisfaction" was the single most important factor in retention, Falk said.

"We have a saying here that we recruit singles, but we retain married couples," she said. The Navy realized that "providing family services was real smart."

Until recently, the Navy left families to wrestle on their own with the trauma of separation and other hardships of military life, or expected them to find support from wives groups or church groups.

Excess Baggage

"The old saying was, if a sailor was meant to have a family, he would have been issued one with a sea bag," said Capt. Albert Stott, senior chaplain at Port Hueneme who, in the early 1970s, did some of the first sociological studies on Navy family life.

"The Navy has come a long way," Stott said, citing the establishment of programs since 1980 providing counseling to families in areas ranging from suicide prevention to financial planning. Wives of Deepfreeze sailors who have attended programs explaining deployment syndrome said they were not alarmed last week when they found themselves provoking arguments with their husbands over subjects ranging from hedge trimming to diapering techniques.

"I turn into a real witch right before deployment," said Sharon Smothers, a 13-year Navy wife and veteran of six deployments. "To see that someone had actually done a study on it was a relief. It's not that I hate him, it's not that I'm crazy, it's not that I'm falling apart."

The arguments are a healthy, albeit unpleasant, way to soften the blow of parting by putting emotional distance between the husband and wife, Logan says. The gap broadens again in the last few days before departure when most couples withdraw from each other even more, talking and confiding to each other less. Also, sailors who boast of 11th-hour love fetes with their wives are most likely telling sea stories.

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