During the few months of the year when Sam resides on land, there are events planned for sailors of his boat nearly every weekend: formal dinners, holiday parties, barbecues, nights out at bars, and the common “hail & farewells”—celebrations, usually at officers’ homes, during which the officers bid goodbye to one of their own and welcome the incoming officer replacing him. Only by negotiating with the captain does a sailor manage to get out of these events, but he cannot do this too much without looking like a defector.
It takes effort to claim as your own the little time off work that you and your sailor are allotted. Sam tries and succeeds to get more time for us to spend together and with our friends, but it pains me to think that he has to expend more energy than he already does wrestling with his demanding work schedule.
This forced socializing is ironic because of the military’s weak claim that it supports families. By the “military,” here, I mean first and foremost its higher ranking officers. Take Sam’s captain, for example, who loves to croon at these collective gatherings about the importance of family, how the guys wouldn’t be able to do what they do without the support of their loved ones. Well, yes. But if family is important, then do what you can to protect the little time that families have together rather than inserting yourself into every waking moment of their lives. I remember raising an eyebrow at the captain as the officers and their families sat one Friday night a few weeks ago at a local bar. He was gushing over the wife of one officer cuddling her whimpering toddler: “Look at that,” he said, “Mother and child. Isn’t that special?” I thought, it would probably be a lot more special if you weren’t the voiceover for this mother-child bonding, and the kid and his parents had the option to relax in their own home.
On the last bloody weekend before Sam’s most recent deployment, the captain of his boat called a mandatory Friday night dinner in an upscale restaurant for all of the officers and their partners. There was no way that Sam or I could have gotten out of this. Empty seats at the table would have announced our absence, and the only thing worse than going myself was the thought of Sam across from an empty seat where I should have been. Yet it was the last weekend we would have had together before Sam was about to leave for months without any contact.
Parents of young children were, of course, required to find and pay for their own babysitters, as they are with so many other navy events.
The inappropriateness of the timing made my blood boil. Is it not enough to take service members away from their loved ones, with no contact for more than half of the year? Can you not give people a single weekend before such a trying separation to be free to do as they please?
Don’t get me wrong; I love an occasion to see Sam dressed up, and to go out and do special things together like have a good meal. Any excuse to do that isn’t all bad, and I never have a bad time out with Sam. I also love a few of the women who are married to officers on Sam's ship, and would choose to be with them regardless of the function. But this is about choice, and the navy gives you very little choice about how you spend your time off work.
The first time Sam invited me to one if these military events, I felt proud, excited, and touched; it was as if he was introducing me to his family, and in a small way, he was. But the navy is a little bit like a large conglomeration of in-laws who keep showing up at the worst times and demanding your undivided attention. To extend that metaphor, if your spouse were willing or able to keep a little bit more space between you and those in-laws, you'd like them more.
These navy events are organized for the service members and not for the families attending. At the pre-deployment dinner in question, more than half of the event was taken up by speeches by the captain and the higher ranking officers, honoring the president of the US, the US military, the war on terror, and the US’s dwindling group of allies in the war on terror. Next, the officers of the boat each stood up and did what they do at just about every gathering. They gave speeches recognizing and honoring one another, full of inside jokes about individual officers' idiosyncrasies--some of these jokes misogynistic.
The officers on the boat laugh, some of the spouses laugh, other spouses smile politely and shift in their seats as their butts get numb from all the sitting and listening. Those attending are held captive in a way, especially when it is the higher ranking officers who are speaking. As one of the readers wrote in response to my first post, she had to raise her hand to go to the bathroom during a captain’s speech at one such “dinner.” Clearly these are not social gatherings among equals, but events infused with navy hierarchies, with spouses and of course, unmarried partners at the bottom.
Officers and their families are, as a rule, expected to help foot the bill at such gatherings. More than that, each officer is expected to host his own party at a bar or restaurant in which he buys drinks for the entire rest of the officers and their partners. For the most common event, a “hail & farewell,” it is the wives and girlfriends who are asked by the officers to cook, so it’s their time, money, and energy being used.
Captains and Family Readiness Groups out there, here’s a task for you: If you want families to be “ready” for the stresses of military life, then give them more time together and let them keep their money to spend on one another and their children.