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The Silent Service

Picture taken by Liz Benroth Photography

Back to life with my husband on submarines.

I've been posting about our STA-21 journey for a couple years now, since I started this blog. And now we are here-- our household goods have arrived, we are settled in a new house in a new state, and we are at our new duty station.

It was brought to my attention a little while ago when a civilian friend of mine-- a friend who's husband is not in the military-- that when I say we are "back on submarines," people don't have any idea what that means. (Or for that matter what STA-21 and duty stations and PCS-ing mean.)

So for everyone who is curious, welcome to Kimber's Navy Family.

What does it mean to be married to a submariner?

Submarines are called the silent service. They run secret, classified missions and operate undetected in the waters. As such, they have stringent operations security (OPSEC) measures. The exact dates they leave and come home are classified. Where they go is classified. What they do is classified. Even elements of the submarine itself are classified. As a spouse, there is a limited realm of knowledge I am given regarding my husband's job.

We have clear rules regarding OPSEC:
  • We cannot discuss over social media, text or email, written communication, or over phone calls (video or voice) boat movements. We can only pass information face to face.
  • We cannot give hints or codes over those same forms of communication, such as, "The day I went into labor with our oldest minus one and plus five..." Nope.
  • Some submarines have 24-hour rules, meaning boat movements are no longer classified within the 24-hour window of it coming or going. If a submarine has this rule, we can communicate boat movements once we are notified by the ombudsman that it is no longer classified. This is when I would call my mom and say, "The submarine just left" or "My husband comes home today!" However, if notifying her of the boat leaving, the arrival date is still classified and so, while she now knows that my husband has left, I could not tell her for how long.
  • Some submarines have entirely secret operations and boat movements are not to be discussed over those forms of communication at any point-- coming or going. No calling your mom even within the 24-hour window and saying your husband left. No calling your mom within the 24-hour window and saying you are on your way to pick up your husband. No posting on social media that today is a rough deployment day. No writing your best friend and telling her how hard of a time you've been having while the boat's gone. Boat movement is not to be discussed at all over any forms of communication.
  • Passing boat movement information even face to face is to be done only to a select group of trusted individuals-- not to the grocer or cable guy, but to friends and other people who understand boat security. The individuals informed of boat movements must also respect OPSEC. This means that if you tell your mom face to face that the boat is expected to leave around a certain day that she doesn't go and post on her Facebook page that she is proud of her service member who deploys soon; all persons privy to boat information are bound by OPSEC.
  • The Family Readiness Group (FRG) attached to your submarine is a lifeline in these situations. This is where you receive all communication regarding boat movement. Your spouse cannot email you and tell you when he is coming home. (And, depending on boat activity, your spouse may not even be able to email you at all.) You must attend in person these FRG meetings to get an idea of boat movements or else you have to wait until information is no longer classified to hear what is happening, meaning you get a phone call once the boat is at the pier, "Honey, I'm home! Come pick me up."
OPSEC can be hard to live under with a spouse on the submarine. It is isolating. It is hard when you see other people from other branches of service or with different duty assignments posting on social media about having a hard deployment day. You see their friends comment on their status, "Hang in there! Let me know how I can help." "Can I bring you dinner today?" "Let me pick the kids up for you tomorrow." It is hard when your friends and family are all over the country and you can't talk to them. It is hard when you know your spouse is getting ready to deploy and you can't vent to your best friend about the frustrations leading up to a submarine going underway or about all the small errands you have been running or how many times you've had to pack the seabag. It is hard when you can't proclaim to the world that your spouse is finally coming home next week. It is lonely.

Outside of OPSEC, submarine life is unique in other ways from sailormail to actually getting underway. From a spouse's point of view, the boat actually leaving when "scheduled" is an emotional rollercoaster. Your spouse comes home on Wednesday and says he is leaving on Monday. By the time Sunday comes, he says he is leaving Tuesday but standing duty on Monday. You say your good-byes at 4:00 am Monday morning, only for him to come home on Tuesday morning and say they are leaving on Thursday and he has Wednesday off. Wednesday morning he gets called in and works until Thursday morning; you say rushed good-byes before he leaves. He comes home Thursday afternoon (after staying up all night) and says there is little to no chance of them leaving before the following Tuesday. He sleeps for much of Thursday, waking up around dinner when he gets a call saying they are leaving Friday morning. You say your good-byes Friday morning and carry your phone around with you all day Friday, hoping to hear from him, only to find out that they did indeed go underway late on Friday. Seasoned submarine spouses say, "Welcome to the lifestyle." It is true. This is life being married to a submariner. However, it never gets easier. Every underway is different and some are easier to handle emotionally than others. You may say good-bye on Monday stoically, collapse in a puddle of tears Wednesday, jump for joy Friday, and then sob all day Saturday. You may be frustrated each time that he comes home, only because you had prepared yourself emotionally for, "Okay, today is the day," and now you have to psych yourself up again. You may feel stressed because it is another hello and good-bye that you have to guide your children through or you may feel relieved that it is another day as a family. On top of that, depending on what the hold up is, your spouse may come home happy that he is home, angry they are delayed, or exhausted that he has been awake for a day and a half and still not deployed when they have been working their tails off. Adding to this stress is that you cannot call far away friends and family this whole time for support, "He's left today! He's home today! Now he has actually left today!" You are alone, depending entirely on the local support you either have or do not have.

Regarding communication with your spouse while they are underway on the submarine, sailormail (the boat's email system) is sporadic. The email system is one of the lower priority systems ran on the submarine and so if it breaks while underway, especially on a shorter underway, it may not be fixed until after the boat arrives back at the pier or the boat surfaces, meaning you may have no emails from your spouse for weeks and then your inbox is flooded. The emails are also screened before they are sent, generally by the Chief of the Boat (COB) or Executive Officer (XO). This creates a delay in emails, since emails coming and going must be read (and possibly censored) before they reach you or your sailor. Depending on boat activity, there may also be a limit on how many emails your sailor can send or receive at a given time, meaning they may have a 2 email limit during certain operations. Emails received are often missing words or phrases and could be out of order, making conversations or lines of communication difficult. Many couples employ numbering systems to help keep emails straight and to help their spouse know if emails are missing, such as Day 1 Email 1, Day 1 Email 2, Day 2 Email 3, Day 3 Email 4, but the spouse only receives Day 1 Email 2, Day 3 Email 4; now the recipient knows that Email 1 and Email 3 have not come through yet. While he is underway, there is no other form of communication with your spouse outside of sailormail-- no live chat or social media or texting, nothing.

There are also various types and classes of submarines. To put it in the most simple terms, some submarines are homeported where the family members are living. For instance: sailor, family, and submarine are all local and homeported in Hawaii. Some submarines are homeported on one base with two crews (on crew and off crew) and the family on another base. For instance: the submarine is homeported in Italy and the family living in Georgia. When the sailor is on crew, he flies with his crew to the submarine in Italy and the family stays in Georgia; when the sailor is off crew, he is living in Georgia with his family and working on the Naval base in Georgia. The two crews rotate who is on crew and who is off crew. When they are home instead of underway, we have rotating shiftwork to contend with or duty days (spending the night on the boat every certain number of days).

It can be hard dealing with a spouse stuck in Guam or Italy with a submarine, him calling you frustrated, "I can't wait to come home." It can be hard dealing with your hubby coming in and out on the submarine; you don't expect him home for weeks and suddenly he is home for two days when you least expected him and all your plans fly out the window. You never know what to plan, if your spouse will actually be home for a vacation or dinner or weekend or birthday. You never make plans you can't change or refund. You never talk about whether or not your spouse is home or away. You never know if your spouse will actually leave when he says he will. You are always making excuses or changing the subject or explaining OPSEC when family asks if your spouse is home over the phone, "I tried calling him on his birthday. Is he home or underway?" You carry your phone with you everywhere, waiting for the random phone call they make when they happen to go topside (and why does that phone call always come when you are in the shower or at church?). You check your email hourly, daily, waiting for when his first email might come. Despite your vigilance in carrying your phone everywhere and compulsively checking your email, you rarely receive news from the depths. You attend every FRG meeting, hoping to hear any updates on boat movement or a mail drop or a port call. You talk vaguely to your children about what their Daddy is doing, knowing they won't know when to censor themselves on boat movements, but trying to give them enough information that they feel secure. You try to explain that their Daddy is on a submarine, even though he left for his underway in the middle of the night or you dropped him off at an airport or shuttle stop or a friend picked him up. You hold them close as they sob at the front door or run to the window at every sound that might be Daddy's car, reminding them that Daddy is gone on his submarine, "When will he be home, Mom? What day? How many days? Can he please come home tomorrow? Can I call him?" You remind them when they say too much at the ice cream shop that they can't tell people about Daddy's submarine and if they want to tell someone, they need to ask Momma first. You feel heartbroken when an email comes in for the children but not for you but more heartbroken when an email comes in for you and not the children. You wipe their tears when Daddy leaves and comes home again, and again, and again, "Does this mean he is staying home? Why is he leaving tomorrow? Why did he come home today? You said he left? Why does he have to go?" You comfort them and entertain them when Daddy walks in the door exhausted and barely makes it to bed after you filling you in on yet another schedule change, "Why can't Daddy play with us?"

And through all of this, you have a handful of people you know locally that you can talk to. All you want to do is call your best friend, your mom, your sisters and cry or vent or find support. Instead you are alone, alone wondering what to tell the children, alone wondering if you can handle another good-bye, another hello, another uncertain departure. Alone wondering if today you will get a call or if you will miss a call since you accidentally left your phone at home ("Should I turn around and get it? But I will be late! Who cares? I have to go get my phone..."). Alone navigating fellow spouses who got emails when you didn't. Alone navigating fellow spouses who got calls when you didn't. Alone feeling overjoyed when word from your spouse finally comes and you lay awake re-reading every word he wrote. Alone navigating weeks without word from your spouse. Alone navigating your spouse calling you every day from a fabulous port call while you are home with sick children and a van with a flat tire and nothing to make for dinner. Alone hearing news that your orders changed. Alone planning a move or receiving your household goods. Alone taking your baby to the ER. Alone.

And at the same time, surrounded by a military family. It is hard to explain the gratitude and love you feel towards a fellow military spouse who watches your children so you can take the baby to a check up or brings you dinner when you are sick. There is such a feeling of solidarity attending holiday events with the other spouses at home while the boat is gone, each of you relying on each other, alone together, getting through the hard times, the bad news, the long days, the distance, the unexpected-- together as a military family. The spouses who know exactly what you are going through, who feel the same disappointment and frustration, who have the same struggles, the same expectations, who just know. They truly become family. They see you at your worst days and best days. They have all been there and gone through it.

I hope this blog post helps shed a little light on what it is like to be married to a submariner, especially to my readers who are either not military or who are in different branches/lines of duty than the submarine force.

Please feel free to share this post with your friends and family or to share your experiences as a submarine family with me!

For more reading on submarines, check out this link by "Explore the Four Classes of Submarines."
Check out my "Military Resources" tab for past posts on our life as a Navy family.


Anonymous said…
This is exceptionally well written! It has everything that a wife and family at home go through when we are attached. It is a bit easier now with the sailor mail system then in my time on the boats. We only had incoming "Family Grams" limited to 30 words and these were only given for a "deployment". Never for that 2 week run that turned into 4 months or that short hop that then got sent to the med to cover another boat. Nor does it cover "weekly ops" Out on Monday, in on Friday with duty and maintenance on the weekend.
It is always hard on the wife at home and we always appreciate how they make our times home the best and not complain about what happened and how hard it was on them the past underway. Thank you Ladies for being so supportive! MMC(SS) USN, Ret.
Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
naturallyjules said…
Oh. My. WORD Kimber. You are SO PRECIOUS!!!! Having been in almost EVERY situation you listed, hanging on every sentence for the fullness of the thick emotions rolling through my head and heart with each memory it brings up, we are just shifting back to sea tour from shore tour, and I find myself waffling from excitement for my husband and his new boat, and digging my heels in with clenched fists screaming like a toddler (silently in my head) "but I don't WANT him to leave!" Ah sweet sisterfriend- you can message me and just know I am CHEERING YOU ALL ON, am in the thang alongside you, and you hit the nail on the head. And yes, our husbands are courageous beyond measure. And so are our KIDS;)

Keep it up girl- you SHINE!!!

Anonymous said…
Thank you for this. I'm a mom of a submariner who isnt a very verbal person to begin with, so your blog has given me more information than he has over the past few years! Keep on sharing! Xoxo
Kimber said…
Anonymous, thank you for your service! I have been told about family grams before and I am VERY thankful for sailormail, truly. I really can't imagine relying on family grams... Sailormail has its challenges, but I know this is better than family grams! Sailormail doesn't always work for those short underways either and it is disappointing when you hope and hope and hope... However, if it doesn't work during the short underways, oftentimes we get an influx of emails when it is finally back at the pier! That is exciting. :)

naturallyjules, THANK YOU! First of all, that is the first time I have ever heard sisterfriend before and I love it. Totally using that phrase from now on... Secondly, YES. I felt the same way going back to sea duty. The nice thing is you know what to expect and the bad thing is you know what to expect! :) Best of luck to your family and totally agree with you about amazing husbands and children.

Anonymous, it must be a submariner thing. My hubby didn't explain duty days to me when we first got married. I was so worried when he didn't come home that night! He told me later, "I'm sorry! I told you I had duty." I said, "But I guess I didn't know what that meant!" Ah, Navy life... ;) I'm glad this post helped you!!

Paula Jaenichen said…
I recall this vividly as a way of life. My husband has retired after 30 years on Submarines. When we started, we got familygrams (40 words with the first and last word being names). The submarine "family" is small but a close knit group and only another submarine family truly understands that life. The joke we had at home was schedules were carved in jello.

Still miss the submarine "family"....

Keep it real and remember you are never alone.
Hi I ran across your blog after Googling "who reads your submariners emails". LOL I guess you could say i might have gotten mine into some trouble and needed to figure out how bad I had messed up. Oops! However, I just wanted to say I truly appreciated this blog. I am not a wife of a submariner I am a significant other/ a girlfriend. Everything that you have written I have felt several times over and often in the same day. It is so nice and comforting to know that I am normal. I am a former military kid (Army) but dating someone in the service is completely different and especially in another branch. Thank you so very much for putting my feelings into words. :)

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