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Navy Wives on the Front Lines at Home


The conference room at the Long Beach Naval Station was sweltering, so hot that the Navy wives wondered for a moment what it must be like in the Persian Gulf. "If they can stand the heat," Pat Keys said dryly, "then so can we."

Keys and two dozen other wives were assembled at the Long Beach base one night last week because they are at the front lines of a struggle being waged far from the Middle East. It is a battle for calm. A quest for answers. A fight to keep their lives, and the lives of other Navy families, as normal as possible amid the turmoil of the Mideast.

The 80 women of the Long Beach Naval Station's Ombudsmen's Council are the primary link between local families and the 1,800 sailors in or around the gulf in four warships: the Antietam, the Prairie, the Vandegrift and the Daniel R. Ray. The women are also the communication and support network for hundreds of other Navy personnel and local reserves who may be dispatched to the region.

Like ombudsmen councils at Navy bases nationwide, the Long Beach troubleshooters have been around for decades. But not since the Vietnam War have the councils faced the sort of challenge and stress now present with U.S. warships massing in the gulf.

For three weeks, these Navy wives, many of them with husbands already deployed, have been serving as surrogate family to other Navy wives. They have been taking calls at home from spouses and then placing calls to the naval command. They have been holding public meetings on some days and trying in private on others to resolve family problems without alarming a military spouse. In short, they have been trying every way they can to fill the gaps left when a military family is temporarily split up.

"I don't chauffeur. I don't baby-sit. And I'm not a bank. But I'll help out, like the others, just about any other way I can," said Debbie Stiles-Lusk, an ombudsman for two years.

Sometimes, that means taking calls from a distraught spouse, like the young Navy wife who has been calling Stiles-Lusk since the crisis began. Six months pregnant, her husband sent to the gulf, the young woman is scared and lonely enough to make Stiles-Lusk forget, for a time, that her own husband, Paul, is also there aboard a ship.

"You have to put aside your own feelings sometimes. You have to have some heart in dealing with other people," said Stiles-Lusk, 37, of San Pedro. "If they need an ear, they need an ear."

Other times, the ombudsmen's council coordinates visits to Navy wives whose husbands, even under normal deployments, are gone six months a year. The visits help bring the Navy wives out of their shells and often out of their homes, where some hide themselves for days at a time. That has been particularly true recently as families sit glued to their television sets for some word, any word, on their spouse's ship or the next deployment.

"I know wives who are watching television 10 to 14 hours a day. Sleeping on their couch and then waking up in the middle of the night to turn on the set and see if anything's happened," said Stiles-Lusk.

That sort of existence, she and other ombudsmen said, is dangerous.

"Concern is one thing. But allowing fears to paralyze is destructive," she said. "So I tell the wives it's important to evaluate what they're doing to themselves when they watch that much television," said Stiles-Lusk, who has limited her own television watching to three hours a day.

In many cases, the ombudsmen say, they have learned through experience how to help others through the loneliness and fears and struggle of life as a Navy spouse.

"Sometimes when you're having a real lousy day, getting yourself out of that feeling to help another wife is one of the hardest things we need to do," said ombudsman Sharon Hamilton, 41, of Long Beach. "But we do it."

As Keys, president of the council, explained: "Don't get the impression that we're not human because we act stronger. We have the same emotions as anyone else. But I think the majority of us are strong, independent people and you have to be independent when you spend half of your life alone."

Still, even Keys and the others have never been through the sort of anxiety now arising from the Middle East crisis.

"Put it this way, everybody is spending more time in church," Keys said.

They also are spending more time together, such as at the meeting last Thursday.

There, they talked over strategies that might help families. The advice ranged from dealing with children to protecting themselves from taking on the anxiety of other wives.

"It's important to remember," Keys later told the group, "that you as ombudsmen are taking a big part of the stress. So take care of yourself first."

Of course, the advice is often hard to follow, especially when the wives are fielding calls all day and night from other Navy spouses who want information on military actions or deployments.

"It can be frustrating," Keys said, "because you do feel for the people who call. Sometimes, it seems like we should have the answers and we don't. And it's hard to say 'I don't know.' "

Often, that is all Keys and the others can say, either because they have not been given the information or are not at liberty to talk.

They may not like the restrictions, but the ombudsmen abide by them just as they hold to the belief that Navy wives will get through the gulf crisis by doing what they have done during other deployments. They will talk. They will meet. They will live life as normally as they can.

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