Service members struggle with a great many things that most people never have to deal with. The average American does not face the challenge of deploying to locations unknown, or performing a task knowing that you have the lives of those all around you at stake, or even how to follow orders that may not align with your own values. For those who serve, these obstacles can cause quite a bit of stress.
While coming home to friends and family is seen as a well-deserved reprieve from the arduous conditions of deployed life, it is also an incredible struggle. Coming home means the structure that governs my life is gone, the life I left behind did not stop and wait for me, the memories and longing for home had become an illusion. I was a foreigner in my own life.
I stepped off of the plane mid-afternoon, I felt the strange familiarity all around me. Not only was I back on American soil for the first time in eight months, but I still had my sea legs. San Diego felt so cold compared to the warm climate of the Middle East and Southeast Asia. I was almost home, just a two-hour flight a much more bearable flight than from Singapore to San Diego; I would see my wife and kids again. A family that were only ghosts in my head, and voices on my phone, they were not real anymore. I was a tornado of mixed feelings, I was excited to see my wife, after all, it had been almost nine months since we said goodbye. I was fearful that my son would not know my face, that he would see a stranger and not the overprotective father that left him. Terror had been a constant companion to the image of my daughter, I had spent just three weeks of her existence with her, I knew she would not know me. Still, I was back, and despite my sudden shift in lifestyle, I was excited. Once I reached my family, we could begin our next chapter in Pensacola, FL.
Before making port in Singapore for the second time that deployment, I had almost given up on leaving early to attend “A” School in Florida. At any rate, deployment was practically over, and I had grown comfortable in my small floating world. I was like a prisoner, we all were, institutionalized, and just as I had given up on early parole, I was thrust out back into the world, after being so alienated. I had to reintegrate with society with my family. Now I was boarding a plane heading for Spokane, WA, and the mix of happiness and fear was setting in. Outside of the gate, the strangers known as my family would be waiting for me. I had grown accustomed to the sounds of harriers, elevators, ballast tanks, gunfire, and the constant piping of the Boatswain pipe: a small pipe used to inform the crew of time, events and emergencies through predetermined calls every 15 minutes on the 1MC.
I quickly discovered I had no tolerance for the cries of my children, what’s worse, is I didn’t seem to have the ability to make it stop. I was left anxious by the noise of brutish civilians around me; loud, sloppy savages. Yet we had hit port just a week earlier, and the bars, clubs and bustling streets of Singapore felt natural. I could not shake the feeling that the world I had left was no longer mine. I was so afraid that I would never be the father and husband I had been before.
When I left my family, I had to separate myself; the family man was a different person than the sailor. The sailor was a part of the ship, the sailor thrived on misery, and the endless, confining abyss of the ocean was a comfort of the madness. The sailor was focused on the mission, on surviving the dangers of the ship, and an explorer of foreign ports and drinks. The sailor was rough and vulgar. I had to regain my former self, I needed to be presentable among the savages. That’s something that’s not well known, the perception of civilians from the eyes of the military. Civilians are sloppy and simple, and the way they feel is supposed to matter, none of this is true, but it’s part of the culture. I could not seem to let my guard down, to be comfortable with my new captors. In my mind, it was as if I had been released from one prison to be placed in another society. I kept telling myself, give it time, I will adjust.
At the same time, I was filled with frustration with life and the Navy. After completing the entire deployment, save 3 weeks (which was just the trip back to San Diego from Singapore), putting my life on the line living the life of boatswain mates and deckhands, I was to be a slimy wog, one who is not a Shellback.
The day I boarded my flight was the day the ship weighed anchor and the following day they crossed the line. A ceremony in which Wogs become Shellbacks by crossing the Equator and being hazed.
It felt as if my birth rite was taken from me as if I had lost my honor as a sailor. Even those who claimed to be sailors, those who sat in air-conditioned office spaces and couldn’t tell a bitt from a chock: a deck fitting which a line runs out of, or a mooring line from an LCU line
were able to be Shellbacks, but not me. This missed ceremony means a lot in the maritime world, one of the last standing traditions our modern Navy still allows, and I had to miss it after all that time.
After a few days, I had begun to find my balance between sailor and family man. I was slowly able to deal with the noise, but I had decided it was no use to try to separate the sailor from the rest of my persona. I began to work on the integration of the two, I was a loving father, but I was also a rowdy, salty sailor. By realizing I could afford to be open to my family, that I was back, I was able to navigate the trials of this new sea. At sea, one must be only a sailor, but when back at the home port, one must learn to be both sailor and family man to survive the emotional storm long separations cause.