Left behind: Navy families navigate life at home

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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. According to one survey, 40 percent of military families experienced more than six months of family separation in the previous 18 months. We found that the hardships associated with submarine deployments are different for the families left behind than for those carrying out missions hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface.

Women relying on one another

Groton — It's a sunny, mild day in late November, and Hailey Carr, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, is on the roof of the house of her friend, Kelsey Smith. She's convinced Smith, not a fan of heights, to string Christmas lights, a task that normally Smith's husband would help with. But he hasn't been home in months.

"I have other friends that would help me out, but it's not the same as friends who are going through the same thing as you at the same time," said Smith, a 32-year-old from Washington state, who is living in Groton while her husband is stationed at the Naval Submarine Base. Josh Smith is a sonar technician on the fast-attack submarine USS Minnesota, as is Carr's husband.

I have other friends that would help me out, but it's not the same as friends who are going through the same thing as you at the same time.
Kelsey Smith

Over the past six months, the wives of sailors serving aboard the Minnesota, which returned Wednesday from a deployment, have relied on one another in circumstances both big and small.

They've babysat one another's children, spent holidays together, shared meals, picked each other up from the airport. When Carr's son Chris, 6, had ear surgery, Smith left a care package at the door with soup and Jell-O. When Smith's daughter Hadley, 2, forgot her beloved "Blanky" at home when they went to visit family in Washington for the holidays, Carr mailed it across the country to them. Time usually spent with their husbands has been spent together.

"They've become our family," Smith said.

Kelsey and Josh Smith, 31, got together in their senior year of high school in Washington and married after their freshman year at Central Washington University. The couple, who've been married nearly 10 years, have a 6-year-old son, Colton, as well as Hadley.

Hailey, 27, and Chris Carr, 26, met at the Pennsylvania Farm Show as sophomores in high school. They've been married almost five years, and have one son, Chris, 6.

The submarine force, made up of about 20,000 active-duty sailors, is a close-knit community. That's what attracted Josh Smith to serve on submarines instead of surface ships, and that tight community extends to their families as well, Kelsey Smith said.

The average age of a submariner is 29. More than half are married, and about a third have children under age 18. The hardships associated with submarine deployments are different for the families left behind than for those carrying out missions hundreds of feet below the ocean's surface.

Each submarine has a Family Readiness Group assigned to it that helps assist the families. The group plans events such as halfway night — a themed party where the wives celebrate deployment being halfway done — and disseminate information about the boat, such as when it makes a port call. Carr, whose husband has deployed on submarines before, is the group's current president.

The secret nature of their work means their families know little about what they do, especially when deployed. Stealth is a submarine's most important asset. When on mission, submarines can go 45 to 60 days without communication. On deployment, the sub's leadership is diligent, screening all incoming emails to ensure operational security isn't compromised. They also don't want sailors distracted by news from home.

Given the sparse communication between sailors and family, when one wife gets an email, she'll notify the others, and they'll rush to see if they've heard from their husbands, too. Smith's and Carr's husbands work in the same division, as does the husband of another of their close friends. Sometimes the husbands included stories of one another in their emails — pranks they pulled, a funny night out while in port. Josh Smith went 10 days without showering to win a bet. His prize: A can of Dr. Pepper.

While contact with their husbands is sporadic, Smith, Carr and two other Navy wives are in a group chat on their phones so they are in near-constant contact. The phone buzzes. One of them is having a hard day and needs to get some things off her chest. Or they have a question involving their kids. One asks, Have you heard from your husband recently?

"I tell him everything," Smith said of her husband. "I can still email him but it's not the same."

The wives have been friends since before their husbands deployed, but they've become closer, in part because they've come to rely on one another.

When Carr was deciding whether to go forward with ear surgery and genetic testing for her son, she told them what worried her and asked for their advice. Smith was worried about her daughter's speech development so she asked one of the wives, a teacher, what she thought.

When that same wife couldn't get home during a winter storm, she came to Smith's house with her baby to wait for the roads to be cleared. Carr came over with a phone charger so that when she went back out, she could contact them if she got stuck. When she finally reached her house and found out the power was out, she returned to Smith's and stayed the rest of the weekend. An impromptu girls' night ensued.

After one of the wives was involved in a car accident with the kids in the car, Carr rushed to the scene to help, went in the ambulance, and waited in the hospital.

"We're each other's go-to people," Carr said.

Deployment makes these moms single parents

For the past six months, she's waited in the cold at the bus stop. She's made sure the kids got to school on time and their lunches were packed. She's driven them to doctor's appointments and sports practice. She's read them books and tucked them in at night.

She cut down this year's Christmas tree, which took several attempts to get into the house because it was almost 2 feet too tall. She's mowed the lawn and plowed snow from the driveway. When the kids act out, she punishes them. When they miss their dad, she consoles them.

"I'd prefer not to do this alone, but knowing that I can makes it easier," said Kelsey Smith, 32, a Navy wife and mother of two. "We proved to ourselves that we could do it."

Smith's husband, Josh, a sonar technician on the USS Minnesota, returned Wednesday from deployment, but for the past six months she's had to be both mom and dad.

I'd prefer not to do this alone, but knowing that I can makes it easier.
Kelsey Smith

Preparing for deployment meant Josh was gone for much of 2017. Soon after they bought an older colonial-style home with a good-sized yard in the city of Groton, a 10-minute drive from the base, Josh left for pre-deployment workups with their belongings still in boxes.

Forty percent of military families experienced more than six months of family separation in the previous 18 months, according to an annual military family lifestyle survey by the nonprofit Blue Star Families.

When Josh left for deployment in September 2017, Smith wasn't sure what to expect. It was the family's first deployment, so everything was new, even the house. Josh had more confidence in Kelsey's ability to do it on her own than she did — at least initially, she said.

At night, after putting the kids to bed, Smith felt lonely.

"It was like, now what am I supposed to do?" she said. "He wasn't usually around during the days anyways because of work, so at night is when I would miss him."

But being alone at nights, raising the kids and managing the household responsibilities by herself became the new normal.

"He tells me what we're going through is much more difficult. All he has to think about is work. We still have to do life," she said.

She tries to get errands done during the days while she only has her daughter, Hadley, 2, to take care of, and Colton, 6, her son, is at school. On Tuesday nights, when Colton has basketball practice, she has to bring Hadley with her, meaning she stays up past her bedtime. She's gone to every game and practice, often taking videos on her phone per Colton's request so Josh can later watch his first season of basketball. Though they'd never miss a chance to video chat with their dad, often Colton acts out afterward, and Smith has to calm him down.

Throughout the deployment, she emailed Josh at least once a week, often more, filling him on what he had missed — Colton lost his first tooth, Hadley's been talking more and started taking gymnastics. The family are big Seattle Seahawks fans, so in her emails she sent the scores for each game and copied and pasted the play-by-play. Josh frequently requested updates on the house.

Being a single parent for stretches of a time, however hard, is an accepted part of being married to a submariner. The Smiths have been married for almost 10 years, with Josh serving in the Navy for about half that time. He plans to serve at least 10 years.

Smith, who has two bachelor's degrees, one in family studies and the other in social services, is focused on raising a family for now. Once the kids are older, she'd like to work for an adoption agency or with kids in foster care.

According to the annual survey from Blue Star Families, 46 percent of military spouses are either not employed or underemployed. Among employed military spouses, 51 percent earned less than $20,000 in 2016. Frequent relocations make it difficult to maintain a career, though there have been efforts to help military spouses in this regard. Last year, Connecticut made it easier for military spouses who are licensed attorneys in other states to practice law here.

"I definitely put my goals on hold. I'm not saying that in a bad way. That's just the choice I've made," said Hailey Carr, 27, whose husband, Chris, also a sonar technician on the Minnesota, just returned from deployment.

Carr, who previously worked as a medical assistant, figured that after paying for child care, her take-home pay would be minimal, so she chose not to work.

Still, without her husband around, she worries whether she's making the right decisions day to day for her son. Is she being too hard on him? Did she make the right choice about his ear surgery?

"As a mom, I beat myself up all the time about doing the right thing," she said. She worries about filling two sets of shoes, being both mom and dad.

"I know I don't fulfill the dad role the best," she added. "There's things in his life that I can't relate to, like coaching a sport. Everybody else's dad is doing it. I would've helped with baseball, but he didn't want me to. He wants his dad. Video games. He wants his dad."

Now that that the men are back, it will be another transition. Smith spoke of factoring Josh into the decision-making.

"With him being gone, I make all the decisions from what we will eat for dinner to how we will spend our days to big purchases that need to be made. Involving him in the everyday decisions will take time getting used to, I'm sure," she said.

But it will be a welcome adjustment.

"We're definitely ready to have two adults in the house."

Deployments difficult for the children

The three of them are huddled in the bathroom one morning getting ready for school. Kelsey Smith, 32, has just drawn a mustache on her son Colton's face with a black marker for spirit week, while sister Hadley, 2, looks on.

Then they hear the distinct ringing sound the phone makes when Dad is trying to video chat. They pick up, excitedly. The connection is spotty. He is in port in Spain, which seems like a world away. They have time for a quick hello, before they kiss the screen and head off to start their day.

While Colton and Hadley are not alone in having a father who serves on a submarine — "it's sonar," Colton says of his dad's job. "They get to find other boats that have bad guys on it" — it doesn't make the months apart any easier.

In the beginning of the deployment, Josh's boat, the USS Minnesota, had several port calls close together, so the sailors were able to call home more frequently. Kelsey was surprised by this as the families were told by the Navy to expect minimal contact.

When the sub is in port, "you put your life on hold ... because you don't want to miss a call," Kelsey Smith said.

When the boat goes back out to sea, it's like starting all over again. "We're not waiting for Dad's phone call anymore," she said. "We have to get back to a routine."

The deployment has had a different impact on the couple's two kids.

Hadley, who is almost 3, is too young to understand the concept of time, or why Dad is gone. Just the same, she says that everything she owns — toys, clothes, books — were bought for her by Daddy. She sees pictures of Josh around the house and points to them and says "Daddy." As the days wound down, she'd hear noises in the house, and would ask "Daddy?" thinking Josh was home.

"I'll say, 'Daddy is still gone,' and that's the end of it," Kelsey Smith said.

For, Colton, who turns 7 this summer, the deployment has been more difficult. He was dealing with a lot initially — a new school, new friends, all without his father. Josh missed his son's first basketball season, but he's hoping he'll be able to help coach his baseball team this spring, or his first football season next fall. During one of his basketball games, Josh happened to be in port and was able to watch the game via video chat. Though the connection was spotty, Colton thought it was pretty cool that his dad could watch from far away.

Asked halfway through the deployment whether the time was passing slowly, Colton replied, "It feels like twenty hundred weeks." Mom was doing a good job while Dad was away, he said, "but I'm the man of the house."

Colton misses cuddling with his father — who has a spot in the corner of the couch — and watching movies. They like to dance and sing together. Of almost every song, Josh says, "that's my jam." On Halloween, Colton saved all the Snickers bars he got, Josh's favorite candy, and put them in the freezer to save for him. When his mother cooked a meal that his father likes, he'd say, "Let's save this for Daddy."

He'll send jokes by email to Josh. "There were 10 cats on a boat. One jumped off. How many are left? Zero. They're all copy cats." In another email, he shared what he learned about sharks that day at school. The Christmas lights are still up outside the house because Colton wants Josh to see them.

We're looking forward to going to the park with him, playing on the playground, just being here with us is what we're looking forward to most. Just having him in the house.
Kelsey Smith

Josh wrote several chapters of a book for Colton called "The Adventures of HMS Millennium Spoon" in the same style as Geronimo Stilton books, Colton's favorite, about a mouse who is a journalist and editor for the fictional newspaper The Rodent's Gazette and often gets caught up in adventures.

The family didn't do a countdown until there were eight days left in the deployment because it makes the days pass more slowly, and Colton becomes too consumed by it and gets upset.

One day, Colton came off the bus crying. When Kelsey asked him about it, he said that he misses his father the most when he sits in the back of the bus "because it reminds me he's so far away." He often doesn't verbalize how he's feeling, Kelsey said. When he acts out, her instinct is to punish him, but she has to think whether maybe he's misbehaving because he misses his father.

Frequent moves and separation from parents are routine for military children. The reactions to these stressors vary, but younger children may struggle in school, act out or withdraw. Research has shown that the mental health of the parent at home has a big impact on their distress level, especially for younger children.

Charles Barnum Elementary School in Groton, which enrolls about 400 students, 75 percent of whom are military dependents, holds a weekly deployment club as a way for students with parents deployed to talk about how they're feeling. During a Veterans Day ceremony at school, a seat with a yellow ribbon was left open in recognition of Josh.

"We're looking forward to going to the park with him, playing on the playground, just being here with us is what we're looking forward to most," Kelsey Smith said. "Just having him in the house."

Homecoming

On Wednesday, they moved the paper submarine one last spot on the countdown chart — "Hooray, this is the day daddy comes home," it says.

After six months of only seeing one another via video chat when the boat made port calls to Brest, France; Haakonsvern, Norway; Faslane, Scotland, and Rota, Spain, and communicating through sporadic emails, Josh Smith, 31 a sonar technician on the fast-attack submarine USS Minnesota, dad to Hadley, 2, and Colton, 6, and husband to Kelsey, 32, finally is home.

Smith is one of 130-plus crewmembers on the USS Minnesota, which was returning from its first six-month deployment. It was the longest Josh's family had gone without him.

A day after a nor'easter dumped more than a foot of snow on southeastern Connecticut, Kelsey, Hadley and Colton, all dressed in new winter coats, waited in the cold and wind, which proved too gusty to hold up their signs for very long — Colton's read "You have travelled the world. Now you're back in ours!" and Hadley's was painted with blue, green, purple and pink dots and the words "Welcome Home Daddy."

As the kids waited, they waved shiny gold and purple pompoms. Hadley nibbled on a big sugar cookie, and Colton gobbled up three bags of chips. At home, a tower of Dr. Pepper cans, several bottles of his favorite beers — Killian's, Blue Moon and Sam Adams — and his favorite candy — Snickers, Reese's and 100 Grand bars — was waiting for him.

"I see it, Hads," Kelsey told her daughter, as the boat slowly made its way to its berth at the Naval Submarine Base. "Get your pompom." They tried to see which of the men, dressed nearly identical except for the color of their life jackets, was Josh, but they couldn't make him out.

First the boat had to get to the pier, then it had to be tied up, then the trash had to come off. Then there were the traditional firsts — first kiss, first hug. One sailor met his baby for the first time. Then it was time to flood the pier.

Kelsey, with Hadley in her arms, held Colton's hand as they snaked through the crowds of people embracing, snapping pictures and videos, and looking for their loved ones. At one point Kelsey stood on her toes to see if she could see Josh. Finally, they spotted him.

Colton was the first to reach him, giving him a big hug and jumping into his arms. Earlier, he'd said his plan was to "hug him to death." As Josh picked him up, he joked "You're heavier than I remember." Hadley reached out from Kelsey's arms and wrapped her arms around his neck as he kissed her on the cheek.

"Did you guys see us pull in? It was awesome, huh?" Josh asked, before informing the kids, "I've got lots of presents for you guys."

"Isn't Daddy a good enough present?" Kelsey asked.

"Uh-huh," Colton said, grinning.

Postscript: Navy family adjusts when the submarine returns from deployment

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.

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."

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