On Halloween 2009, around 7:00 p.m., a sugar-crazed group of costumed children and their adult chaperones works its way through one of those North County neighborhoods where the rows of prim two-story homes are painted in homeowner-association-mandated tans and terra-cottas. Near the center of the crowd, Cherise Worth, a 32-year-old nurse, holds court with the neighbors and keeps random children in check (no leaping over hedges or eating candy that has not been inspected). Her husband Donovan, who returned two weeks ago from a five-month deployment on the USS Ronald Reagan, hangs back at the edge of the activity, sipping rum and Coke from a disposable plastic cup.
An hour later, in the sparsely decorated den of the Worth family home, Cherise examines each piece of candy the children have collected and tosses them one by one into a pile on the floor. Afterward, she organizes and oversees the selection process during which each of three children (her two and one cousin) chooses ten pieces of candy in turn until the pile is reduced to a few unwanted Tootsie Rolls. Again, Donovan sits apart, in the kitchen now, still nursing his drink.
He doesn’t speak about it tonight, but Donovan will later claim that his distance from the Halloween festivities has more to do with his quiet personality than any kind of disorientation. He will, however, admit that he usually tries to steer clear of social activities for a while after a cruise.
“You don’t want to surround yourself with a lot of extra people outside of your immediate family when you come home,” he says. Instead, he would prefer “two weeks, three weeks, a month or so” to get back in step with home life.
Donovan’s situation is far from unique. This is evidenced by the plethora of available resources — pamphlets, workshops, websites, and even comic books — aimed at helping service members reintegrate after deployment. Do an online search for “military,” “homecoming,” and “problems,” and your first hit will likely be healthyhomecoming.org, a consortium of private and governmental groups whose self-proclaimed goal is “ensuring every service member, veteran and family a healthy homecoming from war.” Each branch of the armed forces has its own methods and materials to assist with reintegration. At Naval Base San Diego, the effort is led by the deployment team at the Fleet and Family Support Center.
One rainy Monday afternoon in early December, the assistant public affairs officer for Navy Region Southwest escorts me to a squat grayish tan building on the “dry side” of Naval Base San Diego. Upstairs, in the Fleet and Family Support Center, I meet a man named Stanley Beason.
Beason, the deployment support coordinator, sits me down at a large conference table immediately inside the office. The beefy ex-sailor, dressed in an earthy tweed jacket and khaki slacks, tells me he went out on his first deployment at age 20 and retired just 5 years ago. He’s been married for 32 years.
Beason’s authority as coordinator of “Return and Reunion” education comes from his experience on the job and his willingness to speak frankly. One story he tells is about the time he and his best friend left their wives for their first deployment. “I remember his wife crying these big crocodile tears. And I looked at my wife, and she wasn’t crying at all. I questioned if she loved him more than my wife loved me. What I didn’t know at the time is that people grieve differently. Unfortunately for him, he’s been married and divorced three times.”
Mary Kirby, the chief of services, joins us a few minutes into our conversation. As a Navy daughter, she is empathetic to family members during R&R, as it’s called.
Beason and Kirby tell me that the reintegration process has three stages: anticipation, reunion, and adjustment.
The anticipation stage begins as soon as the service member learns the date of return. This can be weeks, days, or just hours before it happens. Anxiety about the reunion is common for both the sailor and the family at home.
On one deployment, Beason’s wife had to move while he was away. He recalls “coming home not only to my wife and children who I had been separated from for six months, but I’m also coming home to an entirely new household. That happens all the time in sailors’ lives.”
Rebekah Sanderlin, Army wife and author of a blog called Operation Marriage, wrote two lists in her January 19, 2009 post. The first consisted of the “homecoming preparations” she would make before her husband’s return. It includes expected things like breaking the kids of sleeping in her bed, cleaning the house, and dusting off the pots and pans. The second list, “Things that I’ve done in preparation for past homecomings that I won’t do again,” is more surprising:
- Spend three days cooking all of his favorite foods. (I did this two deployments ago and he didn’t eat any of it. He wanted sushi instead.)
- Buy a special outfit to wear to meet him. (He never noticed.)
- Hang a big “Welcome Home” banner on the front porch. (He said it was a security risk because anyone driving through our neighborhood would know that we’re military and that he deploys.)
- Tell our son when Daddy is due home. (As every military mom knows, there is nothing worse than having to disappoint a kid by telling him the date has been pushed back.)
On May 28, 2009, USS Ronald Reagan, a monolithic nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, sailed out of San Diego to join the other ships of its strike group, including a guided-missile cruiser, three guided-missile destroyers, and a guided-missile frigate, which had departed the day before. The strike group headed to the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility, where, on July 6, Carrier Air Wing 14 — a flight squadron on board Reagan — launched the first of more than 1600 sorties, or combat flights.
“We did about three and a half months in the Indian Ocean, and the rest of the time was pretty much transit to and from,” Donovan Worth recalls from atop one of the leather cubes that serve as chairs at his kitchen table.