Hope keeps them afloat

When more than 5,000 Navy men headed out of town in November to support the impending war on Iraq, they left something behind.

Their wives.

Take Mimi Jackson for instance.

When her husband Troy — a gunner on the support vessel USS Rainier — left Bremerton, she stayed home with their 2-year-old child and another growing in her belly.

She is one of thousands of women in Bremerton and other other parts of Kitsap County who must make sure all the children in their family are fed and the house is in order while their husbands are overseas.

They are the ones changing the diapers, doing the dishes, getting the oil changed, fixing that leaky faucet, taking care of paperwork and even holding down full time jobs, praying each day for their husbands’ safety.

But somewhere, always at the back of their minds, is the very small fear that they may never return.

“That’s something you just deal with,” said Korri Ostheller, 31, whose husband has also been on the USS Rainier since his November deployment.

“You can’t just psych yourself out and worry all the time. You still have to run the home. I don’t have the option to lock myself in my room.”

Ostheller is a mother of three and spends her days working at a Seattle law firm.

“It takes a lot of courage,” she said.

And although there are growing numbers of men across the country who are left to hold down both roles while their wives travel the seas in uniform, the majority of the those at home are still women.

When the stress of not having her “best friend” around overcomes her, Ostheller chats with friends at work or her extended family. She also has a personal trainer and is starting kick boxing classes.

“It is a tremendous relief to think that people are praying for you, calling you and touching base,” she said.

Even though they have frequent e-mail and occasional telephone contact, Navy wives share a common grief — the loss of their best companion.

Their sounding board.

Their friend.

The person they can share the stories of their days with.

Currently, more than 150,000 Navy personnel nationwide have left their families and their home ports for the Middle East seas.

From Bremerton alone, the carrier USS Carl Vinson has 3,500 men and women on them. The USS Sacramento, Rainier and Camden have around 560 people on board each.

About 60 percent of those personnel are married, according to Lisa Rama, public affairs officer at Naval Station Bremerton.

While back at home with their husbands at sea, Navy wives say it takes faith and distractions to maintain a sense of peace without them.

“When they first leave it is really hard, especially when you know they may not come back,” said Dee Kinder, whose husband Jonathan is aboard the 5,000-person carrier USS Constellation in the Middle East.

The Constellation is currently travelling with a battle group of destroyers, cruisers and other ships, plus a submarine.

“I cry all the time,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t even realize you are missing them and your mind starts wandering. The next thing you know, you just start crying.”

Kinder said it never gets easy for a Navy wife. She has been married to an officer for 10 years now. She experiences a series of emotional swings before and after he leaves on a deployment, which lasts six months or longer.

“When Jonathan first leaves the hardest part is the first two weeks,” Kinder said.

“I just throw myself into my work. I work eight hours a day, get home and then put in four to five hours more on my computer,” she said.

“Then, when it starts getting time for them to get home, you go through another emotional swing,” she said.

In her 10 years of marriage, her husband has been deployed six times for a total of three years. She also worries about the younger Navy wives, like her friend Arlena Dietz, especially with war looming all around.

Two years ago Dietz was pregnant with her first child. As luck would have it, her husband was deployed the day before the little girl was born.

He had no choice.

Before he left in November 2002, Dietz got pregnant again.

“It is difficult to raise a child by yourself,” she said. “It is difficult to go through morning sickness without someone getting the crackers for you. But you just deal. You just keep going.”

Nowadays, her 2-year-old daughter asks for daddy by bringing Dietz a bunch of videotapes. Before her husband left, they made a video of him reading to her. Now the toddler can watch it to remember what her dad looked like.

“Daddy is an abstract idea at the moment,” Dietz says with a chuckle.

The funny thing that Dietz noticed is whenever her husband Troy leaves, appliances start to break, and cars won’t start.

But, personally, she has never broken down.

“He’s coming back, and the question is just when,” she said without hesitation.

Dietz isn’t worried about her husband being attacked by a bullet or a missile. She says there isn’t another ship that is going to come within feet of the vessel.

“But if my husband were in the Army or Marines I would be in church every day just saying ‘God protect my husband,’ ” she said. Still she recites her share of prayers for her loved one.

Ostheller and Kinder are also not worried about a direct attack on their husbands’ vessels.

“I consider the ship a good place to be,” Ostheller said. “The captain is very cognizant of what’s going on.”

While their husbands are floating off shore in the Middle East, the ladies read about war protests in the paper and see anti-war marchers on television.

“I just think (the protesters) are lucky my husband is out there protecting their rights to do so,” Dietz said. That’s the consensus among her friends, she says.

She supports the anti-war protesters’ constitutional right to free speech, but she also says such a right comes at a price.

“In order for that to happen then someone has to protect it,” Dietz said.

Mimi Jackson echoes Dietz’ concerns.

“I think about how proud I am that he is over there and that freedom of speech is one of the freedoms he is fighting to provide. They are people risking their lives.”

For each ship, a support group meets monthly to talk about day-to-day matters, and provides a shoulder to lean on. There is also a Kitsap Navy Wives Club # 46.

“We just had our half way party,” Jackson said. That means her husband has only three months until he steps foot in town again.

Unless war breaks out — then the wait will go on.

But Dietz and her companions will handle it just fine.

“Navy wives are a strong breed,” she said.

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