A Different Badge of Courage

YOKOSUKA, Japan (Nov. 20, 2012) Operation Specialist 2nd Class Barrett Lafferty, from Grapevine, Texas, greets his newborn child after the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) returned to Yokosuka, Japan. George Washington and embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 provide a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interest of the U.S. and its allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Brian H. Abel/Released)

The photo above packs more than pathos into a single image.  

Among sailors, it tells a familiar story. Whenever a Navy ship returns to home port, some seagoing dads meet their newborn children for the first time. Absent complications, deployed dads don’t get to leave the ship and go home for the birth of their children. That Navy fact of life struck me as odd when I was a newly commissioned Navy medical officer. But I learned that to “provide a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interest of the U.S. and its allies and partners”  requires the constant presence of sailors sworn to protect and defend. Keeping that oath often requires absence from home and family for a gamut of life’s milestones, including the birth of one’s own child — first or otherwise.

Under current operational tempo, sometimes those children aren’t so newborn by the time Daddy finally gets to sprint down the ship’s brow and sweep the infant into his arms. Yet these scenes always bring joy to our hearts and tears to our eyes. 

A deeper story exists in the photo above: the location is Yokosuka, Japan, the headquarters of the U.S. 7th Fleet and many of the Navy ships forward deployed to protect and defend. Two tours of duty in Yokosuka marked the highlights of my Navy career. Among the benefits of those tours, I learned about the resiliency, commitment, and outright courage of our Navy’s young sailors and their spouses.

Imagine being a 19-year-old (or even a 25-year-old) recently married woman. Such is your love and commitment to your sailor-husband that you’ve accompanied him half-way around the world to an unfamiliar country where not only the language but even the alphabet presents a mystery. Behind in the U.S., you left your parents, siblings, close friends, extended family — the entire support group on which you would otherwise rely for that blessed event, the birth of your first child. 

Did you know when you said “I do” that you would bring that baby into the world in a foreign land without any of the traditional helpers, not even the father of your child? Your husband went through boot camp and other training to prepare for his deployment on the gray ship that took him away for months — not long after you arrived in Japan. Who trained you for the challenges of birthing your first baby away from everyone you love?

On the brighter side, the Naval Hospital and the Navy community in Yokosuka rise to help meet that challenge, and make a positive experience under the circumstances. I’ve heard that the community support makes Yokosuka a good place to have babies. True that. But it does not minimize the courage and endurance of our young Navy couples and their families. And that’s why it is good to highlight the photo of one such family, each of whom — mom, dad, and baby — deserve to be called American heroes. Without their willingness to make personal sacrifices to support the sailor’s oath to protect and defend, the 7th Fleet would not have sailors in Japan, and the U.S. Navy would fail in its mission to support one of our nation’s most important alliances.

At the end of his tour, someone will pin a well-deserved medal on that sailor’s chest. No such award will be given to his wife, the mother of his child. Perhaps she doesn’t need a medal. Perhaps she knows in her heart that she has done her part, contributed to the mission, and will be justly proud of her own service to our Navy and our nation. 

At at time when we give thanks and celebrate family, let us honor all Navy spouses — men or women — who sacrifice and give so much to our Navy and our nation. 

Resurfacing

Been underway for a few days, mostly beneath the cloud of a “limited bandwidth” environment, meaning no internet and very little e-mail access. For some of my younger shipmates this is a crisis of major proportions. For me, it’s back to the future.

This is my third Navy assignment to sea duty, each with expanding envelopes of connectivity from the sea to family, friends, and the rest of the world. Today I feel as though I’ve resurfaced, perhaps temporarily, from the Twilight Zone.

My first deployment as an air wing flight surgeon in a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier occurred in the late spring and early summer of 1993. We had no internet, no e-mail, and no phone service. We relied on snail mail while underway and pay phones when ashore in a foreign country. We numbered our handwritten letters sequentially, because they would seldom arrive in chronological order. So if the last letter I received from home was #6 when everyone was doing fine, and then I got #9 saying “We’re all better now,” I had to wait patiently, and somewhat nervously, for the rest of the story in either #7 or #8. Except sometimes one or both of them never came, leaving me indefinitely clueless. Some of that cluelessness persists to the present day.

Prior to the deployment I looked forward to the port visit schedule, a typical “Summer Med Cruise” idyll .  Many of the crew booked plane tickets and hotels for spouses to join them in exotic ports of call in Mediterranean playgrounds. But the old salts knew better and saved their money. Thanks to bigots in Bosnia and some dude named Saddam in the Middle East, most of those port visits were cancelled. During the six month deployment we spent all but 18 days at sea…without e-mail, phones, or internet. Whenever we did actually get off the ship for a port visit, the first thing that most of us did was wait for hours in crowded lines at pay phones for the chance to call home, collect. Kathy was thrilled to hear my voice when she answered the phone, disappointed to hang up a half hour later, and livid when she got the $300 phone bill at the end of the month. We were not exactly flush at the time.

“Don’t call!” she said when I embarked in another aircraft carrier for my second deployment in the late fall/early winter of 1997. “It’s too hard to hang up, and we can’t afford the bill.” She was right, of course, as usual. BUT, at least we had e-mail then. So even though we still perferred the romance of writing actual letters in longhand, sequentially numbered of course, we also had the relative luxury of real time e-mail communication when and if we wanted or needed. The ship also had phones available, but you had to buy a phone card to use them. I recall they were some outrageous price like $10 a minute, which no doubt included the MWR cut. So I didn’t call. Well, except for Christmas Eve when I got to use one of the ship’s POTS (“Plain Old Telephone Service”) lines  for free to call Kathy in Michigan where her large extended family was gathered at her parents’ house. “Why are you calling?” she scolded. “You’re interrupting the present opening.” (This was really a big deal in her family then. I would have been upset too.) So I never called again during that deployment.

Now I’m on a highly sophisticated communications platform, where I have ready access to e-mail, multiple telephone lines, internet, Facebook, Twitter, and other cybercoms that I don’t begin to understand. But the bandwidth-challenged environment of the last four days has sent me back to the future to that first deployment, where I wrote a lot and accomplished a number of goals like earning a surface warfare designator and logging almost 100 hours of flight time off the deck. Amazing what you can get done when you’re not able to surf the net. Same is true of the last four days. Wrote a lot, read a lot, accomplished a lot.

Now we are back to normal communications. Haven’t exactly rushed back to the internet. I plan to continue writing, reading, and accomplishing some other goals. And, no I don’t plan to call home until we are back at the pier.