At Pearl Harbor's Fleet and Family Support Center, Navy families can get help coping with the stress of deployment as wells as other services. Chet Adessa, left, a family advocacy program prevention and educational specialist, speaks with Navy wives Michelle Cloud, Denise Draa and Therese Lester. Sitting around Cloud are her two children, Jazmyn and Jayden.

Spouses cope
with separation

Programs help isle families address
the many hardships of military deployment

By Gregg K. Kakesako

Navy Cmdr. Edward Lester is nearly halfway around the world, cut off from his three sons and facing the uncertainty of war.

Yet sitting in his stateroom as commander of the 455-foot frigate USS Reuben James, Lester can keep in touch with his youngest son living in Hawaii by reading him a book each night.

It's all done using videotape and with the help of Pearl Harbor's Fleet and Family Support Center.

Therese Lester said the program, called "Stories from the Sea," was started by the wives of two Navy admirals to help Navy families, and especially those with young children, cope with separation of deployment.

Lester said she made it a point to send her husband eight books that their 4-year-old son likes, especially one about fishes called "Swimming."

"One of his first reactions," said Lester as she described her son viewing the tape, "was, 'That's my dad, and he's on his ship.' He was seeing a part of my husband's world. He could hear the noise of the ship, the intercom, the announcements in almost real time.

"Then he asked me, 'How did daddy know that was one of my favorite books?'"

Navy spouses maintain that small things like making these videotapes available to families whose husbands are at sea are comforting especially during these uncertain times when the country faces the possibility of war..

All of the videotaping equipment and even children's books are supplied by the Navy, said Chet Adessa, a family advocacy program prevention and educational specialist. Adessa said before a sailor leaves on deployment, he can come into the center's private videotaping room to read the child's favorite book. After the story is taped, the sailor takes the video home to leave with the child during the deployment.

He recalls one sailor looking at the camera and telling his children, "'I am going to give you guys a big hug,' and walking to the camera with his arms spread out."

At Pearl Harbor's support center, Navy families also can get help in filling out tax forms, receive assistance in finding jobs, find legal assistance and obtain information on parenting, child care and spousal abuse prevention. The center provides counseling and holds briefings before a ship goes out on deployment. Navy chaplains are on hand to assist with marriage and family relationship problems.

For the 250 sailors assigned to the Reuben James, the current deployment has been taxing, especially since they are now part of a massive five-aircraft-carrier armada gathering in the Persian Gulf area with war planes and missiles aimed at Iraq.

One hundred and three members of the crew are married, and about 15 spouses chose to return to the mainland when the Reuben James left Pearl Harbor July 20. Five sailors have become new fathers since the frigate left.

In January, the crew of Reuben James may have thought that it did its part in the global war on terrorism after patrolling the Persian Gulf as part of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln battle group. However, on New Year's Day the Navy wives and families were told at a family support session that the Lincoln was ordered to return to the gulf as the Pentagon prepared for a war.

Michelle Cloud, whose husband, Petty Officer Palae Cloud, fought in the first Gulf War in 1991, said, "There always was a chance for them to be extended ... It was very, very hard. There were lots of tears that day."

Denise Draa, who was a radioman on the USS Cimarron during the 1991 Desert Storm campaign, said, "This time, it's very different for me."

"Having been deployed," added Draa, who left the service in 1999 but who is experiencing the separation for the first time as a Navy wife, "I know what it's like, and it's more difficult being a Navy wife than being deployed."

Adessa said children pose special problems.

"They are really worried about their dads," Adessa added. "Under the age of 5, they are aware of what is going on, but they don't know how to cope with it. By the age of 6, they know what war is."

Cloud said her two children -- Jazmyn, 9, and Jayden, 5 -- have learned to read her moods.

"At times when I may be short," Cloud said, "my daughter turns to me and tells me, 'You're missing daddy today.'"

Cloud said it was different 12 years ago when her husband served on the frigate USS Albert Montgomery during Desert Storm.

"It's different when you are by yourself and have no children," Cloud said. "Now I homeschool my two children. There is so much more responsibility. Back then I only had to worry about myself.

"At times my son says that daddy's been gone too long, and I try to comfort him by letting them know that I am hurting, too."

Draa added: "Children feel the stress level from their parents and it is reflected in how they act. Each feeds on each other."

That was one of the reasons she helped to organize a session with Adessa last week. "I knew what the spouses were going through with all the different things and with all their children," Draa said.

Still, the wives continue to make plans for a homecoming celebration. "We plan to make a big banner and place a star on it with each sailor's name," Draa said.

Lester added, "It's like what my husband likes to say: The more the heart aches for them, the sweeter the reunion will be."

Fleet and Family Support Center

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