The woman next to me gasped and shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Around the room, I watched as tears shimmered in the eyes of my fellow Navy spouses.
The stark reality of Navy conditions hit hard.
The senior leader we were listening to was frank. Blunt even.
Yet it was refreshing.
As a spouse, sometimes I am treated as an “other”—or even worse, a “dependa.” But on this evening, the senior leader was open and honest about the state of affairs on the high seas, and, while that information was unnerving, I was grateful to hear the truth. The whole truth, not some whitewashed spiel he thought I could handle. He treated us like part of team Navy.
While the Navy remained engaged and present around the globe during the post-9/11 wars in the Middle East, for many Navy spouses, there was a certain level of assurance in the relative safety of a ship as opposed to on the ground in Ramadi or Kandahar.
As I sat there listening to the senior leader, I was reminded of a scene from The West Wing that aired several years before. In that scene, President Bartlett goes to the home of the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Percy “Fitz” Fitzwallace, to inform his wife that he has been killed in a bombing in Gaza. Fitz did not die as his ship slipped into the sea, but rather in his post-military career supporting diplomatic negotiations.
Gail Fitzwallace responded to President Barlett’s condolences with a line that has stayed with me all these years: “A sailor’s wife doesn’t live with fear the way a soldier’s wife does. You don’t spend a career preparing for this. Seemed like a blessing until today.”
When I first watched that episode, I was new to life as a Navy spouse. I still clung to the idea that large ships, especially ones sailed by the U.S. Navy, were invincible. A couple of years after watching that episode, my husband left the relative safety of an aircraft carrier to do an individual augmentee tour in Afghanistan. In other words, he would be assigned to another unit—an Army unit—on temporary orders, and he wouldn’t be on a ship.
When I was informed of his impending deployment, Gail Fitzwallace’s words rang loudly in my head. Suddenly, my sailor husband was becoming a soldier. Donning Army fatigues instead of his digital blue camis. Gone was the illusion of the safety of hundreds of tons of haze-gray steel surrounding him. He was given a kit and a few months of training, and we hoped for the best.
The differences between a traditional Navy deployment and a ground deployment were striking, especially the unrelenting fear that plagued me at all hours of the day and night. My husband was in harm’s way. All. The. Time.
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
I was so grateful for his return to American soil. Grateful that we could go back to being a Navy family. One that is protected by large weapons and hundreds of tons of steel. Back to the way things were.
The audible gasp of the woman next to me brought my thoughts back to the room. Back to reality.
The speaker, who was becoming more animated by the second, made it clear there is no going back to my idyllic “the way things were” mentality.
He was direct: The threat of war is shifting. With the majority of the internet—in the form of hundreds of thousands of miles of cables—and commerce traversing the seas, a very real battle exists for control of those assets. One we intend to win.
But it will come at a cost.
And what we were being urged to consider is that now is the time to have the conversation Gail Fitzwallace never had. For many of us in the room, our entire military spouse lives had been defined by the operational tempo and demands of post-9/11 warfare, but now, with the end of the war in Afghanistan, it was time to prepare ourselves for the reality that war is imminent on the high seas. And this reality means hundreds of tons of steel isn’t the safe haven we’ve grown accustomed to. No longer are the words “Yeah, but he’s on a ship” going to soothe the soul.
I could feel the weight of these words sit heavily on the shoulders of the spouses in the room, especially the young ones, the ones at the beginning of this Navy life. Everyone seemed to hold their breath.
I know I was holding mine because I am guilty of this very idea—that because I can’t see it happening, it isn’t.
My husband’s entire career has been during the post-9/11 era. Yet it’s only when my husband is deployed that I truly remember the costs of national defense are more than the billions of dollars being spent on expanding the fleet and improving our weapons capabilities.
And the frank conversation with this senior Naval leader reminded us that the real costs have no dollar amount attached.
The costs will be time. We will have precious little of it with our sailors.
The costs are real people and real families.
Our Journalism Depends on Your Support
The senior Navy leader closed with a charge: Get ready, team. Have the hard conversations. Prepare yourself for the risks and the inevitable costs.
This is the reality of serving in today’s Navy. We are the best, and we intend to keep it that way.
No matter the cost.