It’s the siren call of the Navy, the motto to which all sailors hold themselves accountable. The ship becomes your everything: Your family, your friend, your significant other, and sometimes, your nemesis. Despite the love/hate relationship many form with the hunk of haze gray steal floating on the ocean, you know you’d do everything in your power to protect it, and to protect your shipmates.
As spouses, when we married into the Navy, we didn’t completely understand what we were getting ourselves into. We knew about deployments, difficult work schedules, and so many different uniforms they made our heads spin. We knew we’d move a lot. We were told to bloom where we were planted.
When stationed in the United States, it’s easy to escape Big Navy- we don’t rely on the base to meet our every need, we have friends not associated with the military, and often we don’t even live on base. Moving overseas, however, is an entirely different story. We are suddenly plunked into a bubble where we see the same people everywhere we go. It’s a small town feeling that can sometimes feel stuffy, stifling, and suffocating. However, we form fast and furious friendships with our fellow Navy spouses that quickly resemble family, helping each other out in a pinch, trading off childcare, sharing meals, making memories.
And, like all families, we bicker over silly things, and we complain: About the status quo; about yet another training mission or exercise that keeps our loved ones away from us again. And again. And again. In a way, this overseas base life, and our fellow spouses, somehow converge to become a permanently docked ship of our own. While our sailors are out to sea, carrying out the needs of the Navy, we are home, keeping our own ship afloat.
A few weeks ago, our base awoke to the news of the USS Fitzgerald’s collision with a container ship at sea. News trickled in about the heroics of the entire crew, the bravery and extreme determination exhibited by the Fighting Fitz sailors. They didn’t give up the ship, and in the end, 7 sailors gave their lives in the effort needed to keep Fitzgerald afloat.
As the ship limped back to base that night, she was greeted with a pier full of friendly faces. We Navy spouses came out in droves to welcome them home, to wrap them in our arms, and immediately jumped in to lend a helping hand. We were not ordered, commanded or asked. We stepped up willingly, eagerly, and quickly. While we knew the Navy would take care of the Navy things such as logistics, recovery, watch teams, and so forth, we took the charge all on our own of the emotional and personal aspect of it all. Our ship needed help, and we knew we could provide it.
Our NMCRS volunteers emptied their thrift shop to bring dry clothes to the pier to greet exhausted, wet sailors who had lost all of their belongings to flooded berthings. We pounded on the doors of the NEX just as they were closing to buy towels, undergarments, and other necessities. We staffed Red Cross tables to process sailors. We donned USO volunteer shirts to help in any way possible. We offered hugs and prayers, warm meals and warm thoughts.
The next day, we sprang into action yet again as the USO began putting out potluck meal train requests to the base in an effort to feed the Fitzgerald’s sailors three hot meals a day. We signed up for spots so quickly that whole meals promised to hundreds were filled within a few minutes of posting. Walking around the commissary we saw shopping carts filled to the brim with paper products, drinks, and packaged foods, all to be donated to the USO. In the coming days, we dropped off towels and blankets, endless snacks, and NEX gift cards to help sailors who needed to replace their belongings. We donated uniform essentials to NMCRS to be pushed through to sailors in need, hoping to mitigate the cost of all the uniforms lost to the sea.
We took to social media to ask friends for assistance in purchasing the uniforms required by Fitzgerald sailors for the memorial service to honor their shipmates. We were shocked to wake up to a response from our fellow military spouses (and others!) the world over who had sent thousands of dollars to help. We showed up to Fleet Rec with credit cards in hand, eagerly spending the money donated to replace the uniforms of the sailors who stood in line shocked, speechless, tearful, and so very thankful for our presence.
We received messages from FRGs stationed far beyond the shores of Japan, asking to send cards, supplies, and well wishes. We provided addresses to which they could send those items, making sure not to overburden the Fitzgerald’s FRG.
We showed up to the Hawk’s Nest in droves, seam rippers and sewing machines in hand, to spend hours removing old name plates and insignias and applying new ones to donated uniforms, tailoring those very same uniforms on the spot.
We organized neighborhood meal trains for those who needed it, not blinking an eye to care for their children. We let our fellow Fitzgerald spouses cry on our shoulders, holding them tight and whispering that it would all be okay.
We taught our children lessons on how to lend a helping hand, assisting them in making signs to decorate the USO, set up lemonade stands to support our efforts, and offer hugs to the sailors who clearly needed them.
Amidst the torrent of donating, sewing, baking, cooking, listening, and hugging, in the quiet moments after we put our own kids to bed or as we washed the dinner dishes, our tears fell in rivulets down our cheeks as our minds raced. We cried for the pain our Fitzgerald spouses will endure as their sailors recover from this incident. We cried for our sailors as they learn to quiet the demons that will haunt them for the near future, and likely longer, some of whom will carry physical scars, and others who will carry emotional scars far deeper and darker than those the eye can see. We cried for the sailors we lost; the young boy whose daddy is now in heaven, the parents who have to burry their sons. We cry knowing that it could have been us, it could have been our sailor, it could have been our ship. One after the other, fat tears dripped down our faces as we stood in a Line of Honor filled with thousands of us to pay our final respects to the Fitzgerald 7, to thank their families for their sacrifice, and to honor the entire crew that didn’t give up the ship on that fateful Saturday morning.
We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into when we became Navy spouses. We didn’t know the strength we had deep within, that together we could rally and bolster and boost an entire ship of beleaguered sailors. We didn’t know that together, we could rise up to be a force with which to be reckoned, shocking people with our swift, deliberate and decisive response to a crisis, because in the end, this base, and this overseas family is our ship.
Turns out that we, as Navy spouses, wouldn’t dare give up the ship, either.