- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2013

Aircraft carrier crews and their families are devising creative ways to cope with the stresses and strains of increasingly long and frequent deployments.

Before he deployed on the USS John C. Stennis in August, Kristina Bennett’s husband recorded himself reading storybooks for their 6-month-old son.

“Plus, I have voice mails to play for myself and our son so we can hear his voice anytime we want,” said Mrs. Bennett, 26, of Bremerton, Wash.

The Stennis deployment came as a surprise because the carrier returned in March from a seven-month deployment in the Middle East. It originally was scheduled to redeploy in December for four months, but instead sailed in August for an eight-month deployment.

“Only a few weeks before that, we were told we were not going to deploy early. [I felt] shock, hurt, indescribable emotions,” Mrs. Bennett, a tax preparer, told The Washington Times. “Disbelief and anger.”

“Because of the first deployment, my husband missed the pregnancy, birth and the first eight weeks of our son’s life,” she said. “And because of the second deployment, my husband has been in our son’s first year of life for a total of 10 weeks.”

The Stennis is due home in April — and not a moment too soon for Callie Stewart, 23: Two weeks before her husband deployed in August, the newlyweds found out that they are expecting a child.

“We were all shocked [about the deployment]. No one was prepared for this. Instead of a four-month deployment, they left four months early and have a doubled deployment time frame,” she said, adding that the couple spent only 10 weeks together last year.

“And this year I won’t see him until the spring. Makes being a newlywed a little sad,” Mrs. Stewart said.

The Times has reported that sailors and Marines who serve on aircraft carriers can expect long deployments for the next few years because of conflict in the Middle East and a shrinking number of carriers available for duty.

With the deactivation of the USS Enterprise last month and the ongoing, four-year overhaul of the USS Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. fleet of aircraft carriers has been reduced from 11 to nine.

Tasked with keeping two carriers in the Middle East and one in the Asia-Pacific region, the Navy has lengthened the duration of deployments from six months to as long as nine, and has increased their frequency.

For example, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower had been scheduled to return to the U.S. from a nine-month deployment to the Middle East early this year and be relieved by the USS Nimitz.

But in late November, the Navy announced that repairs on the Nimitz would not be completed until this summer. So the Eisenhower returned in late December and will deploy again to the Middle East in February — a two-month turnaround.

When the change was announced, some family members went to the carrier’s Facebook page to express dismay.

“I think this is terrible. We are in the groove, ready for it to be over,” wrote one spouse. “I don’t want a redeployment in the spring. Months of worrying about being nervous about the looming deployment all over again.”

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta visited the Stennis before it deployed to thank the crew and their families.

“I know it puts pressure on your families. Your families are as important to our ability to maintain a strong defense as anybody else. Without our families’ support, frankly, we wouldn’t be worth a damn,” Mr. Panetta said Aug. 22 in Bremerton.

But Navy officials have expressed concern about the increased deployment schedules and have said the two-carrier presence in the Middle East needs to be reconsidered because it requires nearly all available carriers to maintain it. For every flattop deployed in the region, another is returning home from the area, a third is preparing to sail there and a fourth is undergoing maintenance.

In the meantime, sailors, Marines and their families are struggling to endure.

“As much as it isn’t fair, this is their job,” Mrs. Stewart said. “They have to go when they are needed. And since there are other aircraft carriers who are unable to go on deployment, the Stennis and its sailors had to suck it up and head out for a back-to-back deployment.”

“The only thing we can do as their wives are to accept it and stand behind them and support them, it hurts them just as much as it hurts us,” she said.

Navy and Marine Corps spouses say the challenges of a deployment for families are many.

Mrs. Stewart said her husband works 18-hour days on the flight deck, sacrifices sleep and eats as fast as he can so that he can call and make sure she and the baby are all right.

But there are times that ship communications are shut down, and she won’t hear from him for a week or two without warning.

“So I never know when exactly I’ll hear from him. I sleep with my phone turned up as loud as it goes in case he calls or emails me,” the newlywed said.

Mrs. Stewart, who is not working because of pregnancy complications, said it’s tough going through it without her husband, but that it will be worth it when he comes home.

Before Tiffany Bedard’s husband deployed on the Stennis, he went on a “daddy date” with each of their children, ages 9, 7 and 4, she said.

The hardest part of the deployment is him not being able to share in the “little things,” the Ventura, Calif., resident said.

“Missing birthdays and holidays. Not seeing him walk in the door home from work each night. And going to bed alone,” said Mrs. Bedard, who works at a day care center. “People do expect us to be strong. But just because I’m a Navy wife doesn’t mean I’m good at being one.”

Spouses say Navy resources such as free counseling, chaplains and an ombudsman help them — as do Facebook fan page updates by carrier commanders. But none of it takes away the pain of being separated from their loved ones.

“I just keep living one day at a time with the hope in my heart that one of those days we will be in each other’s arms again,” Mrs. Bedard said.