Navy family adjusts when the submarine returns from deployment

'Are you guys really getting ready for bed?' Kelsey Smith asked as her son, Colton, 6, sits on the shoulders of his father, Josh, while picking out a book to read on Tuesday, March 20, 2018, at their home in Groton. Josh Smith, sonar technician on the fast-attack submarine USS Minnesota, had returned home from a six-month deployment the week prior. 'I missed him the most,' Colton argued with his mother and sister. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
"Are you guys really getting ready for bed?" Kelsey Smith asked as her son, Colton, 6, sits on the shoulders of his father, Josh, while picking out a book to read on Tuesday, March 20, 2018, at their home in Groton. Josh Smith, sonar technician on the fast-attack submarine USS Minnesota, had returned home from a six-month deployment the week prior. "I missed him the most," Colton argued with his mother and sister. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

While seated on his living room floor playing with his daughter Hadley, now 3, one day during his two weeks off after returning from deployment March 14, Josh Smith acknowledged that it felt weird to have so much free time on his hands.

Time moves differently when you're operating a submarine hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface.

Those first two weeks home, Smith, a sonar technician on the Groton-based fast-attack submarine USS Minnesota, made sure to balance his time between his two kids, Hadley and Colton, 6, who, after six months apart from him, were clamoring for his attention.

"At first Hadley was all 'Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,' then after three to four days it was back to 'Mom,'" Smith said one afternoon, taking a break from raking the lawn, after about a month of being home.

Colton, meanwhile, who was helping Smith in the yard by piling up the grass he had raked, still wanted to spend all his time with his dad. He continually requested that his dad be the one to wait at the bus stop every day, and read him a book before bed each night — duties that his mom, Kelsey Smith, had taken on while his dad was away.

"I missed him the most," Colton jokingly argued with his mother and sister.

Smith, 31, is somewhat of a typical submariner. The average age of a submariner is 29. More than half are married, and about a third have children under age 18.

"This job would be much easier if I didn't have a wife and kids at home to worry about," Smith said.

Reverting back to family life after a deployment can be difficult because sailors have to adjust to a new routine. After inherently focusing on their job on a daily basis, they must revert to co-parenting and sharing household tasks. If they have kids, they've grown and changed over the months.

But for Smith, it has been a relatively smooth transition. He finally was able to settle in to the older, colonial-style Groton home that he and his wife of 10 years bought last spring and which still was in boxes when he left for pre-deployment workups. Being away for much of 2017 meant he only really lived in the house for about a month last summer. While deployed, he would email Kelsey about projects he wanted to do around the house.

"Just live it in first," she would tell him.

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He hasn't had much trouble falling asleep at night. Toward the end of deployment, he was on the "swings" watch, meaning he stood watch from 3:30 to 11:30 p.m., and usually was done with all his obligations by 1 a.m. — not all that different than being at home. One night recently he was asleep on the couch by 8 p.m. He did have to get used to sleeping in a real bed again, and a different mattress than the one on his rack, which he'd grown accustomed to. And there was the family's large mutt, Bruno, climbing into bed.

He has swapped his Navy uniform for what his family calls his home uniform — a Seattle Seahawks shirt or sweatshirt, and jeans or sweatpants. He reclaimed his corner spot on the couch, which Hadley had taken over in his absence. Now, she sits on his lap while they watch movies.

"It feels like he's been gone forever but, at the same time, it feels like he never left," Kelsey Smith said one afternoon.

After doing everything herself for six months — making lunches, cutting down the Christmas tree, driving the kids to appointments and sports practices — she said she enjoys having somebody around to help out. At nights, she and her husband spend time watching television, catching up on shows he didn't have access to while deployed, or he will research house projects on the computer.

She hasn't seen much of her friends, the other wives of sailors on the Minnesota who relied on one another to get through the deployment, as they are spending time with their families. The Smiths did host some of them at their house to celebrate Easter.

Couple of years of shore duty

Now that he's home, Smith has been able to help coach Colton through his first youth football season. While warming up for his first game, Smith taught Colton how to properly hold a football, as Kelsey and Hadley sat on a blanket on the sideline snapping pictures. The couple, who are big football fans, had been waiting a long time for this moment — pretty much since Colton was born.

Smith, who enjoys cooking, missed being able to make his own meals. Kelsey said their grocery bill went up when he returned home because they went back to eating "real food instead of chicken nuggets and mac and cheese."

He has had to adjust to his kids' food preferences, however. One night, he recreated a fish taco with slaw dish that he had during a port call in Spain — but, as Kelsey had predicted, it didn't go over too well with the kids.

He's taking cues from Kelsey about the kids' routines. Hadley has changed a lot from when he first left, talking much more, and has developed her own personality.

"It's sad knowing I won't be able to be there for them all the time," Smith said. "My dad wasn't around, so I never wanted to be like that."

He acknowledges that his reasons for being gone are different, and justified. Colton knows what his dad is doing is "for the good of the country." Hadley isn't old enough to understand that, yet.

"They'll eventually figure out they can't rely on me to be there all the time," Smith said.

He'll spend the next couple of years on shore duty, as an instructor at the Naval Submarine School, which means he'll be around much more often. When he goes out to sea again in about three years, Hadley will be about the same age as Colton is now.

Smith said he does and doesn't worry about the impact his leaving has on the kids, but then added, "if Kelsey stays strong like she has been, it will all work out."

j.bergman@theday.com

About this Story

To get a better sense of what life is like at home while submarine crews are deployed, Day reporter Julia Bergman and photographer Sarah Gordon spent about five months shadowing two Navy families of sailors aboard the fast-attack submarine USS Minnesota as they navigated day-to-day life. Now, they revisit the family of Josh and Kelsey Smith after Josh returned on March 14.

 

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