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.