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.
Five months is a long time to live on a ship, even if that ship is a fifth of a mile long, rides 20 stories high over the water, and can house nearly 6000 sailors and 80 aircraft. “A city at sea” is how a National Geographic television special referred to USS Ronald Reagan. While it has familiar conveniences, such as snack stores, a post office, a gym, and barbershops, life on board hardly resembles civilian life.
The atmosphere is boiler-room industrial. Sunlight does not penetrate the inside of a Navy ship. When sailors move about, they travel through a series of low-ceilinged, narrow hallways, up and down ladder wells and over bulkhead passageways called “knee knockers,” due to the shin-height iron lip of the opening. Bundles of wires snake overhead in hallways, berthing quarters, and staterooms, and footsteps echo down iron corridors at all hours. The constant hum of machinery and ship operations creates a white noise so ubiquitous that many sailors upon returning home suffer anxiety-induced sleeplessness in its absence.
Despite the massive size of the ship, living quarters are tight, and most sailors spend the majority of their time in a very small section of all that square footage.
As both a lieutenant commander and a division officer, Donovan is one of the fortunate few who live in staterooms rather than the berthing quarters that hold over 100 racks (beds). For the five months of his recent deployment, he had five roommates, and the room they shared had three sets of bunk-bed-style racks, which he says are “long enough to fit in but not really [wide] enough to roll around in.” It also included a small living-room area with desks and a television. While many civilians may squirm at the thought of so little privacy, this arrangement of only six sailors to a room is a luxury afforded to few on board a Navy ship.
“All this is pretty much 90 or 100 feet from where I work,” Donovan says, referring to his sleeping quarters. In fact, most sailors’ accommodations are located on the same deck as their primary work space. Even the wardroom (officers’ dining/meeting room) was less than 200 feet from Donovan’s stateroom.
The close proximity between living and working areas is both logical and deliberate. Just as there’s nothing but a few feet of iron corridor between a sailor’s work and “home” on the ship, the line between work time and off time is hard to distinguish.
“My job is to make sure the division is running and [everyone is] handling things the way I feel that they should, in a fair and proper manner. Some people are very good operators and technicians but not very good…” he pauses to search for the right word, “people people. But they make rank, and now they’re in management positions. Sometimes they need a little guidance on how to do their jobs.”
This means being available at all hours.
“Pretty much from the time we wake up to the time we go to bed, we’re at work. Even when you’re asleep, you’re at work. I can get woken up in the middle of the night — for anything.”
Free time is nothing more than snatches of time here and there. For Donovan, it means going to the gym or working on projects like organizing his iTunes library. Sometimes, if he has a little privacy and the time difference works out, he calls home to check on Cherise and the kids.
“Being a division officer, I have access to what they call a POTS line, which allows me to make phone calls from the ship.” (POTS stands for “plain old telephone service.” The only other way to make calls is with pay phones, but they’re expensive.)
As much as he misses his family, the phone doesn’t always help.
“There’s a time delay on the phone, and you feel very distant,” he says. “It gets kind of old too, because, ‘Hey, what did you do?’ ‘Oh, I went to work today and the kids went to school.’ You get a few new things that come up, and sometimes we have stuff to talk about. Then other times, there’s just not that much.”
Donovan’s social demeanor is neither tightly wound nor particularly authoritative, as a civilian might expect in a Navy officer. He is, however, the typical military man in that he refuses to complain. All the details he offers are just that — details, not complaints. Even as he admits that it’s hard to be away from his family for so many months at a time, he is quick to point out the perks of his job, such as recent stops in Dubai, Thailand, and Singapore. He says he appreciates the quiet moments of ship life, such as “being out in the middle of the ocean and watching the sun set or watching planes fly off the flight deck.”
In some ways, he says, daily life on board the ship is simpler than life at home “because you only have to worry about you. Obviously, you worry about your work, but as far as taking care of yourself, you wake up, you go to a place where the food’s already made, and you eat. You don’t have to cook. Pretty much everything you need is there. You eat, sleep, use the restroom, go to work, and that’s it. There’s nothing else you have to worry about.”
Meanwhile, in Donovan’s absence, the day-to-day life Cherise leads is anything but simple. A week or two after my conversation with Donovan, she sits leaning against the arm of a bone-colored sofa in her den, snacking on a bag of cherry-flavored Craisins.
Monday through Friday, she tells me, she’s up at 6:00 so she can get her 12-year-old daughter Bailey to the bus by 6:45. (Twice a week, she’s up at 5:00 to fit in time at the gym.) Next, she bathes, gets herself ready for work, and wakes her 9-year-old son Cameron so he can catch his bus by 8:35. Then it’s off to work at the nursing agency from 9:00 to 5:00.
On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, Cameron has football practice from 5:30 to 7:30, and on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, Bailey has cheer practice. So immediately after work, Cherise races home to pick up the kids, drops them off at practice, drives back home to start dinner, picks up the kids again, feeds them, and gets them going on their homework. Then it’s bath time and bedtime.
Saturday means football games, one for each kid, up to three hours each, though sometimes in different cities so that Cherise has to choose one and send the other child with another team parent. Sundays are reserved for church, housework, and getting ready for Monday.
All that seems like more than enough, but Cherise is determined to maintain the same lifestyle her children have when their father is home. And so, in addition to everything else on the weekly schedule, she also hosts the occasional precompetition hair party, with 30 girls from Bailey’s cheerleading team, and, during this past cruise, a slumber party with 13 nine-year-old boys for Cameron’s ninth birthday.
Cherise’s comfortable posture and easy laughter belie the military precision she employs in her husband’s absence. Order, she says, is the key to keeping on top of the finances, the housework, the children’s schoolwork and extracurricular activities, and her own job.
“I have a system in place and where I like things,” she says. “While [Donovan] is out at sea, that’s just how I adjust. I have to have things a certain way.”
She wasn’t always like this. She’s had to learn. The first time Donovan went away, the children were six months and three and a half years old. “One on the hip and one in the hand,” she says. She was also in school full-time.
“I didn’t know what to expect. It was hard because you’re used to seeing your spouse all the time, and then all of a sudden, they’re never there, and there’s all these bills. It was completely overwhelming. I cried so many times, I can’t even tell you.”
Cherise’s small, curvy frame and the dainty manner in which she pulls out one Craisin at a time, eating with polite femininity, might give the impression that she is a delicate woman, perhaps even prone to crying. But her voice is strong, clear, and full of laughter as she details the difficulties of her life as a military spouse. Sitting across from her and listening to her story, it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when she broke down because she couldn’t handle the pressure.
“When I got married, I never thought I’d be a single parent. But what you realize is, when they leave, you are basically a single parent. You do have the benefit of the second income, so that’s good, but other than that everything else is your responsibility. If one of the kids gets sick, you have to take off work and go to the doctor. There’s no one to cover for you,” she says. “You just put one foot in front of the other, and you get it done. I think that’s how it is for a lot of moms when they have everything riding on their shoulders because their partner isn’t there — or if they don’t have a partner.”
On Harbor Drive, at G Street Mole Park, a bronze sailor stands in a frozen embrace with his wife and child. The statue is called Homecoming. A few yards away, a 25-foot-tall sailor kisses an equally gigantic nurse. Though sculpted to replicate a photo taken on V-J Day, at the end of World War II, it, too, has come to represent that blissful moment of homecoming we see on the news when Navy ships sail into port.
All the hoopla is reserved for the reunion, which is the second stage and the part that everyone looks forward to. And though the most energy is directed toward the reunion stage, it comes and goes the fastest. News cameras zoom in on a kiss, a hug, a cheering crowd, and a sailor holding his newborn baby for the first time. Then the cameras shut off, the news blurb ends, and it’s over.
The adjustment phase begins.
On February 9, 2010, in response to a friend’s inquiry about how her own reintegration process was going, Rebekah Sanderlin wrote, “We’re past the honeymoon part, and now we’re in the pushy-houseguest-who-has-outstayed-his-welcome-and-doesn’t-understand-kids part. But that’s just my take on it. If you asked him, he’d probably tell you that we’re at the bossy-b*@ch-who-won’t-share part.”
From the number of comments that each of Sanderlin’s postings receives, it’s clear that others relate to her and appreciate the opportunity to talk candidly about the issues she brings up.
Mary Kirby, of Fleet and Family Services, calls this final phase “the renegotiation of the family contract.” Stanley Beason, in his more plainspoken manner, likens the adjustment phase to a new marriage.
“Everybody looks forward to the wedding,” he says, “but then you wake up the next day and all of a sudden you’re married.”
Both Beason and Kirby agree that this stage is when their work is most critical.
Fleet and Family Services provides Return and Reunion workshops to help couples deal with exactly the kinds of stresses and anxieties that Sanderlin refers to. These are 45- to 60-minute classes with titles such as “Reunion: Returning to Intimacy,” “New Parent: Returning to Your Bundle of Joy,” “Stress & Anger Management,” and “Returning From Combat/Hazardous Duty.”
Each command chooses the workshops it thinks will help its sailors most. The classes are taught on board the ship while it sails from its last port to San Diego. Some command posts make certain classes mandatory; others merely recommend classes.
And not only are special workshops available to Family Readiness Groups, or families awaiting the arrival of a service member, an abundance of comic and activity books, DVDs, pamphlets, and brochures are available to help toddlers, teens, spouses, and other family members cope with the stresses of deployment and homecoming.
All this paraphernalia and the profusion of workshops and other self-help tools suggest that the brass is aware of the problems inherent in the military lifestyle. But the question is whether they go deep enough to help in any real way.
Sanderlin claims that workshops and briefings aren’t of much use to a family that has been through the deployment cycle several times. On January 27, 2009, she wrote about a conversation she had with her husband before she attended a homecoming-preparation meeting.
“What do you think they’re going to tell you?” he asked.
“Oh, the usual,” I said. “Don’t plan a bunch of stuff for right after he gets home, don’t let relatives come to visit right away, don’t load him down with a honey-do list the moment he walks in the door, don’t dump the kids off on him — all that nonsense,” I said.
“You know a lot of wives don’t think that’s all nonsense,” he said.
Then I asked what was said during his redeployment briefing.
“The same ‘don’t kill your wives’ stuff they always tell us,” he said.
In October, sailors on board USS Ronald Reagan offered friends and family the opportunity to participate in a “tiger cruise,” to ride the ship from Hawaii to San Diego. This required that some sailors leave the ship and fly home to make room for guests. Donovan chose to fly home, and his family met him at Lindbergh Field. Although he had just completed his fourth deployment, he was still a bit anxious.
“I was excited to come home, but then at the same time nervous because, you know, you’re leaving the environment you’ve been in for a while. You’re glad to leave it, but then you know that when you get home things are going to be different from when you left.”
As he made his way past the glass partition in Terminal 2, he could see Cherise and the kids waiting below.
“Cameron looked bigger. He had a new haircut. And Bailey had sprouted some boobs that she didn’t have before.”
By now, Cherise knows to expect Donovan’s disorientation when he returns. Although he knew logically to expect some changes, seeing his children was a stark reminder of how deceptive the monotony of ship life is.
“He’s been living Groundhog Day for the last five, six months,” she says, referring to the 1993 movie in which Bill Murray’s character relives the same day over and over again. But at home in Rancho Bernardo, time has passed. “Even in our neighborhood, more people have moved in and out, the traffic’s just a little heavier on our street. The gas prices have changed. He even says that when he’s at home, it still doesn’t feel like his house for a couple of days. He’s not used to having a sofa to sit on and a big bed to lie in because they have these tiny quarters. Just being able to take a bath, for example, instead of a shower. So he just kind of walks around in a daze a little bit for the first couple of days until he adjusts.”
To help him with the transition back into home life, Cherise gives him a tour of the house when he returns. She leads him from room to room, noting any changes in layout, procedure, or routine.
“He knows where everything is, but I have to tell him new things that have come up. I keep the floors clean, and the best way I know how to do this is to make sure the kids take their shoes off when they come in the door. And so the downstairs isn’t cluttered, as soon as [the kids] come through the door, the routine is take your backpack up to your room, hang it on the hook, come down, get a snack, then go up and start your homework. Period. The end. No TV, no outside, no anything. So I give him my schedule and what I do with the kids.”
Though Donovan may, by habit, want to step in and do things his way as soon as he gets home, he tries not to. The hardest part is “finding the common ground so I’m not stepping on her toes and I don’t feel like she’s stepping on mine,” he says. “I make a lot of effort to come in and not knock any of her control. I try to step back, let things go how they normally go, and then help out where I can.”
As much as each tries to be sympathetic to what the other goes through during this reintegration process, it takes time to get into a rhythm with each other. After five months on a ship, where “even when you’re asleep, you’re at work,” Donovan was restless his first week back.
“I went to a movie, and I couldn’t sit comfortably through it without getting bored. It was probably a decent movie. It’s just the state I was in at the time. I had no interest in sitting there for two hours.”
It made sense, then, for Cherise, who had just begun a new and demanding on-call schedule with the nursing agency when he returned, to put him in charge. She went to work, leaving him responsible for the children and the household. He figured it would be no problem. He is, after all, a lieutenant commander. How tough could it be to take the kids to football and cheer practice, get the homework done, and get dinner on the table?
Cherise laughs as she remembers.
“He had,” she pauses, “a lot of difficulties. Let’s just put it like that.”
For Donovan, the memory isn’t quite so funny. “I was late to everything. I was running behind. I was stressed out. Homework was going until 10:30 at night, and I was overwhelmed. I was like, man, I don’t even have a job right now. All I have to do is get them where they have to go, and I was just fumbling.”
As funny as she finds it in hindsight, Donovan’s fumbling made Cherise crazy at the time.
“If he doesn’t follow the schedule I have laid out — which works pretty perfectly, I might add — then things start to get out of whack.”
She goes on to say that if Donovan is 30 minutes behind starting Cameron on his homework, then Bailey is going to be 20 minutes late to cheer practice. And if Bailey is 20 minutes late to practice, then she has to do push-ups. And if she has to do push-ups, they’ll never hear the end of it.
“Sometimes I do feel like he’s holding up my schedule,” Cherise confesses. “But then I realize I have to share. I’ve been so used to being the number-one person in control all this time. I don’t want him to feel like we don’t want him there and we don’t need him there, but yes, sometimes I do feel like he’s in the way.”
Although the workshops Fleet and Family Services provide are meant to help with the more common transitional issues military families have both during and after deployment, the center also provides free counseling to service members and their families who need more help than they can get through the hour-long workshops.
Beason, who joined the Navy before Fleet and Family Services began in 1979, believes that the stigma against counseling “no longer exists like it used to” and that “the Navy is far out ahead of society in this particular effort because of the constant deployments and the separation.” He also states, “The vast majority of Navy families manage this whole process very well, without the need for counseling or outside assistance.”
While the latter may be true, it’s hard to believe no stigma against counseling exists. In light of recently published suicide numbers (the Veterans Affairs Department reported a 26 percent jump in suicides by 18- to 29-year-old veterans from 2005 to 2007) and a handful of homicidal rampages by military personnel (see “The Hell of PTSD,” Time, November 30, 2009), it seems there are plenty of service members who need counseling but don’t seek it.
Whether or not the stigma is any less today than in previous years, it does make sense that some service members, thinking their marital problems minor in comparison to the more serious issues of post-traumatic stress disorder, would not seek counseling.
All those minor issues, however, can put a strain on a marriage. According to Rebekah Sanderlin, the odds are stacked against military families even before you throw in the deployment and homecoming challenges.
On February 3, 2010, in a post called “The Odds of Staying Married,” she writes, “What I learned from the 2009 edition of The State of Our Unions is that basically every military marriage is doomed.” She then goes on to list the findings from the report (issued by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values) and compare them to the circumstances of military families. For example, “The likelihood of getting divorced decreases if you own large assets, such as a house. (Most military families move too often to own their own homes.)” And “You are more likely to get divorced if you live in southern or western states. (The majority of military installations are located in the south and west.)”
At the end of her list of comparisons, she writes, “So if you are married to an officer, were raised by two married parents, got married after age 25 and waited a little while to have kids, own your own home, go to church, are white and live in the north — you can breathe easy, you’re golden. Now for the rest of us…”
On January 17 of this year, Donovan and Cherise Worth visited the home of a family friend to watch what turned out to be the final Chargers game of the season. After filling their plates with fried fish and macaroni and cheese, they found a corner of their own in the house full of babies, children, and married couples. When Philip Rivers threw the game-ending interception out of the Chargers’ own end zone, they shouted at the TV along with everyone else in the room. A photograph taken that afternoon shows Donovan and Cherise seated on the floor with their backs against a tattered couch and their arms around each other. Both are smiling.