One of the best retirement decisions Brett and I ever made, although we didn’t know it at the time, was for him to stay in the navy long enough to collect retirement benefits. It was not an easy decision by any means, and we got through our navy years enlistment by enlistment (Brett retired as an E-8, a Senior Chief Petty Officer). It wasn’t until the last two that we decided to stay for the full twenty, and Brett actually retired with 22 years of service.
I am somewhat awed these days by how different and nicer things are for those currently serving and their families. The housing is much nicer, the benefits nicer, and the pay is definitely better these days. And to that I say . . . it’s about time! All those nice things available now? Service members and their families deserve them and they earn them. There’s a reason not everyone joins the military or stays in for longer than one or two enlistments or tours: It’s challenging, stressful and sometimes dangerous work for the service member, and it’s a challenging, stressful and often difficult life for families.
I’ve mentioned before the saying “the toughest job in the navy is Navy Spouse.” There’s a one-word answer for why it’s the toughest job: deployment. When your spouse is in the navy, it’s a given that they are going to go away, usually on a ship, and usually for a long time. During our first tour in Japan, Brett was away 30 out of the 35 months we lived there. Thankfully we never had a tour as difficult as that again, although some were close. I used to joke that whenever Brett checked in to a new duty station, whether sea or shore duty, the first thing he was required to turn over was a list of all family birthdays and anniversaries so the command could make sure he was away on those days. During the 15 years we spent together on active duty he was home for all of two of our wedding anniversaries. Our son and I rarely saw him for Thanksgiving, and I’m hard-pressed to remember when he was home for a birthday although I’m sure he made a few. Amazingly, he only missed one Christmas at home. When Brett deployed I, like every other navy spouse, took over responsibility for everything, from the budget to car repairs to child-rearing so that he could do his job without worrying about what was going on back home. Did I mention too that there were no phones on ships like today, no email, no Skype, no texting and so forth back then? All we had was snail mail, and you could go weeks without hearing from your spouse, whether you were the one at home or the one at sea. Two letters written one day after the other could show up two weeks apart, while two letters written two weeks apart might show up in your mailbox on the same day. If a problem or crisis arose back at home, I had to deal with it on my own; there were no opportunities or means to communicate with Brett to figure out what to do or how to handle it.
Navy life meant we moved, on average, every two and a half years. The longest we were ever in one place were our two tours in Japan, where we were required to commit to a minimum three-year stay, but for a couple of tours we were in place less than 18 months. Although the navy claimed to cover the cost of the moves, it was never enough and we usually had to take out a month or two of advance pay to cover the difference, and then spend our first year at the new duty station paying it back. Moving always meant saying farewell to all that had become familiar. For all of us it was saying good-bye to friends and starting over. For our son it meant changing schools and having to make new friends and finding his place, over and over (he started the ninth grade in his ninth school). For me it usually meant quitting a job and looking for a new one after we arrived and settled in. For Brett, every move meant fitting in and figuring out a new work environment with new coworkers and a new boss. A PCS (Permanent Change of Station) move was the equivalent of having your household goods survive a small fire – something (and usually more than one thing) was always broken or torn or lost. We did six PCS moves during our time together in the navy.
We always chose government housing if it was available. We liked the camaraderie of being with other navy families, and it cost less than living out in town. Sometimes housing was available right away, but other times we had to wait several months before a unit became available, and had to rent out in town. During our second tour in Japan we lived “out on the economy” for the first 20 months of our tour. Although it wasn’t easy, it was still the experience of a lifetime and I’m grateful we got the opportunity. Whenever we moved out of base housing, we personally had to stand and pass a cleaning inspection; there were no contractors that came in and did it for us. That “white glove” was not a myth either. We once failed a cleaning inspection for a spot of old wax on the floor that was as small as a dime! Out of the five navy houses we lived in over 15 years, only one had a dishwasher, only one had air-conditioning, and only one had a carport (we never had a garage). Every single one of the houses we lived in was remodeled or upgraded after we moved out . . . and we still had to clean it to perfection. The curtains that fit in one house never fit in the next or any of the others – we had to purchase new window coverings for every place we lived. Only one of the five houses is still being used – the rest aged out and have been torn down. They were already older than dirt though when we lived in them.
But, you know what? I would do it again in a heartbeat. I loved being a navy wife. I am so proud of Brett – he served his country with honor and distinction. He had a job he loved (aviation maintenance/avionics) and excelled at it. Although our life with the navy wasn’t always easy, it was still a good life. No one joins the service to get rich, but we never had to worry about Brett being laid off, or not being paid. I never, ever got used to Brett’s being gone though – every deployment, whether it was for one week or six months was hard, and it never got easier. I remember saying good-bye to him, memorizing every feature of his face, wondering if I would see him again – Brett worked in one of the most dangerous environments in the world, an aircraft carrier flight deck. I had to frequently reassure our son that his dad didn’t leave again because of something he did, and that daddy was just doing his job and would be coming home soon, even if ‘soon’ was four months in the future. We made lifetime friends during our time in the navy, and we still share a special bond with those friends. Our family got to visit cities and sites all over the United States as we moved around, and different places in Asia as well. Our son grew up and used the skills he learned from making all those moves – he can confidently walk into any room or situation now and make conversation and quickly fit himself in. The navy took care of us, and was there for us if we needed anything. The best part of all though was that my time as a navy wife taught me that I was a strong, competent person who could handle just about anything on my own.
And those benefits Brett earned? Since 1992 we have received a monthly payment based on Brett’s rank and the number of years he served (someone retiring today however with the same rank and time would start off receiving 25% more than Brett does – there is no parity for those who served earlier at lower pay). That payment has always been enough to take care of our housing expenses. Although Brett was promised free family healthcare for life for serving 20 years, we knew long ago that was unsustainable. Instead, we have extremely affordable lifetime healthcare insurance through Tricare, with no monthly premiums, and which includes a prescription drug plan and provides free Medicare supplemental insurance. Out-of-pocket health expenses are capped at a very low level, and we are covered anywhere we travel in the world. We are also eligible for excellent, low-cost family dental insurance, and can shop in any exchange or PX around the world, or any commissary, and use all military recreation facilities world-wide.
Navy life/navy wife – it was all worth it, every moment, toughest job or not.