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Navy Families Deploy Special Forces to Cope With Stress of Separation

Relationships: Counselors say tours of duty strengthen some marriages, doom others and affect the children.

February 15, 1999|ANNA GORMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nicolas Gutierrez, 8, remembers the bad headaches he got last year.

"They were throbbing up here," he said, pointing to his temples. "They would go away and then would come back really bad."

Every time he got one, he went into his room, turned off all the lights, hid under his covers and waited for it to go away.

His dad, Lt. Wayne Gutierrez, a pilot stationed at Point Mugu's Naval Air Weapons Station, remembers too. Every few weeks during his six-month deployment in the Mediterranean, he called home and heard about the doctor appointments, the tests and his son's pain.

Nicolas' migraines lasted for months, and doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong.

But when Gutierrez came home, his son's headaches went away.

The doctors said Nicolas' headaches were due to stress--from his dad's long absences.

On three tours of sea duty, Gutierrez left his family for months at a time. He missed his son's first steps, his daughter's softball games, both of their birthday parties. One year, he was away on Christmas Day.

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And while he was gone, his wife, Amy, received phone calls only every few weeks, and had to make many family decisions on her own. She said it was like being a single parent, except with more financial support.

For most sailors and pilots, Navy service means months--even years--on sea duty and away from home. And while long deployments may strengthen some family relationships, they usually put pressure on them, according to Beatrice Volpe, chief counselor at Port Hueneme's Naval Construction Battalion Center.

While the sailor is gone, the wife--or sometimes the husband--stays at home and takes care of the children and the household. And communication is limited to a handful of phone calls, or now, more frequent e-mails.

"Deployment doesn't fix problems in a marriage or ruin it irrevocably," Volpe said. "But naturally, leaving family brings a lot of stressors."

Volpe said she sees couples every day struggling to deal with the pressures.

She encourages families to communicate as much as possible, and to take advantage of the Navy's services, including counseling and support groups. She said if couples realize that their feelings of sadness, anger and resentment are normal, they will cope better with the deployment. And for some, the long deployments are an opportunity for a new beginning.

Some Marriages Don't Survive the Strain

But not all marriages can survive the time apart. Lt. Cmdr. Ron Fleming, commanding officer of a helicopter combat squadron stationed at Point Mugu, separated from his wife five years ago. Early in his career, and his marriage, he spent what amounted to two years away from home on sea duty.

Now his ex-wife and three sons live in Virginia and he sees them only a few times a year. A framed picture of his sons sits on his desk, and a heart-shaped Valentine note from one hangs from his bookshelf.

Fleming doesn't blame the Navy for the breakup of his marriage, and he said he wouldn't have sacrificed his job for more time with his family. But he does wish that when he was home, he had made the time more valuable.

And he wishes he hadn't kept secrets from his wife--such as the date of his next tour, when he would be back or how long he would be gone.

"The Navy doesn't cause divorces," Fleming said. "But it can be the Achilles' heel of a weak marriage. In a young marriage, you have a lot of insecurities. And when you're gone a lot, it plays on those insecurities."

Now, Fleming advises the eager enlisted men and women under his command to stay home as much as they can and to make their families a priority. He also encourages them to seek counseling.

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"I wish there had been mandatory marriage classes to tell me what was important," Fleming said.

Mike Cianci, an electrician with the Naval Construction Battalion Center at Port Hueneme, leaves for seven months at a time. In the last four years, he has gone on four deployments, to Guatemala, Hawaii, Jamaica and Micronesia.

His first trip in 1995 was the hardest--both for him and his new wife, Melissa. When he left, Melissa's father had just died, she had just been diagnosed with diabetes and she was almost seven months pregnant with their first son.

While Cianci was gone, Brennan was born. By the time Cianci returned, Brennan was about 3 months old.

Cianci said it was tough to view his son's first minutes, weeks and months in pictures.

"When we got back, I literally had to fight the commanding officer to be the first one off the plane," he said. "And I was like, 'Wow.' And then the baby puked on me."

Melissa Cianci said she knows her husband loves his job--so she does everything she can to make the best of the time when he's gone. She works as a day-care provider and spends time with friends who live in the area.

And even though Cianci doesn't like leaving his wife and son alone, he said he wouldn't give up being a Seabee.

"It's my job," he said. "It's what I do. It's what I signed up to do. I love what I do, and I have to provide for my family."

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