Why I Volunteer:  Because The Ship Doesn’t Pull In Backwards

Almost 20 years of Navy marriage later, and I still laugh at that infamous Homecoming almost 20 years ago.  Allow me to explain:

I met my husband while in my Junior year of college, in October of 1998.  We joke that we are the epitome of the old adage, “a sailor walks into a bar”.  Neither of us were supposed to be there that evening, he claims he was forced to go by several of his then shipmates, and I was out with some friends from school, and we had elected to try a new hot spot instead of our usual go-to for music and dancing. 

I suppose you could say we are our own fairy tale in an odd way.  He asked me to dance that night, and I said “no”.  What immediately followed was a comical sequence of events and here we are, almost 20 years later, married, children, and a host of personal experiences as a Navy spouse that still can’t compare to the ship that never came in backwards.  I promise you, if you could see me now, I am laughing while I type.

My husband and I met October 24, 1998.  He was just a few years into his Navy career, and had only been in the local area for a few months.  I consider myself privileged to have grown up in a military rich community, but was certain the military lifestyle was not for me.  Minus my refusing his invitation to dance, we were inseparable after meeting that night, and I had to become agreeable to the lifestyle very quickly, for he was scheduled to deploy for the first time just 2 months and 4 days after we met. 

Thank goodness for e-mail.  In a time where my parents relied on handwritten letters during my father’s service in the Marines, at the very least we were privy to e-mail, and wrote to one another whenever possible.  It was in that time that we learned a lot about one another, and it was also in that time that I intercepted an e-mail intended for my parents, asking for my hand in marriage.  If Muhammad won’t come to the mountain, you improvise. 

Looking back, I was so fortunate to have the support of my immediate family, and longtime family friends who were Navy spouses who offered their guidance and wisdom.  But what would I have done without their help? 

I would have been lost.

Their support was immeasurable, and their guidance was invaluable.  Their knowledge, derived from years as Navy spouses, made my acclamation and understanding of this lifestyle easier to navigate.  Our friendships strengthened during that deployment, and those friendships continue to this day.  Their kindness, their patience, and their guidance are kept close at heart and frequently in mind. 

That’s why I volunteer. 

I volunteer because I know what it feels like to come into this lifestyle and find yourself immediately immersed in it.  I volunteer because I know how frightening it is when you don’t understand this lifestyle. I volunteer because I understand how important it is to have a strong support system in place during good times and bad.  I volunteer because I remember what it felt like to walk into an unfamiliar location on base for a social function, not know anyone, and feeling as though I don’t belong.  I volunteer because I know today’s girlfriends, boyfriends, significant others, etc., may be tomorrow’s Navy spouses.  And yes, I volunteer because the ship doesn’t pull in backwards. 

The morning he deployed, I remember where I was standing on the pier, and where he was standing on the ship.  I remember watching the ship slowly move away from the pier, the sailors waving to loved ones below, and loved ones below waving to those on board.  I remember it as if it happened just this morning.  Fast forward 6 months later, and I was standing in that very same spot - or as close to it as possible - surrounded by hundreds of excited families, friends, and loved ones, all anxiously awaiting for the first sight of the ship’s return.  As soon as the ship’s hull came into sight, the pier erupted with cheering and excited screams.  I held my position, and I couldn’t wait to see him again.  The ship drew closer and closer, the tugs guiding the ship to the pier, and I began scanning the rails for any sight of him.  One problem:  I didn’t know that prior to their leaving 6 months before, the tugs had already turned the ship around to guide it away from the pier, leaving me standing in the wrong spot at Homecoming.

Can you hear me laughing at myself right now? 

I looked frantically at my parents and exclaimed, “I can’t find him!”  I then proceeded to run back and forth on the pier desperately scanning the side of the ship for any sight of him, all without knowing he was watching me the entire time.  He told me later that it was like watching a tennis match, as I ran from one side of the pier to the other.  I should probably remind you it was June, in Virginia, it was HOT, and I was in heels and a dress.  On the pier.  Running. 

One more reason I volunteer, by the way. 

I finally heard someone call my name, looked up, and saw him.  He was smiling and laughing, I was sweating, it was not the fairy tale Homecoming I had dreamed of, and it led to laughter for years to come from my husband and my parents.  But I wouldn’t trade that moment for anything. 

I hope my efforts within the community, along with the efforts of those I volunteer with, make entering into this lifestyle a little easier.  It is my hope that the extension of a helping hand will provide comfort and support to those who need it, and the wisdom I have gained through personal experiences will help me connect with other spouses today, tomorrow, and for many years to come.

Since then, he has deployed multiple times, and we have always been there to welcome him home as a family.  My parents passed away prior to his last Homecoming, but I could still hear my dad reminding me, as he did for many, many years, “the ship doesn’t pull in backwards, Emily.”

That’s why I volunteer.