In a comfortable leather chair, Cheryl Johnston sits in her living room in Quarters “A” on the Seaplane Base. Beside her on an end table, within a display case of glass and wood, is a red and gold flight helmet with the words “Tank” emblazoned across its back.
On the mantel above the fireplace hangs another reminder of her husband’s long service to the Navy; a tattered American flag that stood sentry over Camp McCool in Afghanistan. The living room has all the warm furnishings of home, yet it is just one of 13 for the couple over the past 23 years.
It won’t be the last.
Johnston is the wife of Capt. Jay Johnston, commanding officer of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, and sometime in the not-so-distant future she’ll be decorating another living room in another home.
Military spouses may not spend months or years away from home plying the world’s oceans on floating chariots of steel or soaring the heavens in graceful birds of war, but they too contribute heavily to the altar of freedom.
Standing silently and faithfully in the shadows of heros, they forsake careers, are asked to move to places unknown every few years, and are regularly left behind to shoulder the burden of raising a family alone. Often credited with being the true backbone of the military, they proudly share, and sometimes lose forever, that which they hold most dear.
Married to the Navy
In 1985, Johnston went to a New Year’s Eve party that would change her life forever.
The then 24-year-old teacher bumped into a young Navy pilot who was in the process of earning his wings and within two years they were married.
Those early years were very exciting. The blockbuster movie hit “Top Gun” was out and there had never been so much allure to being the wife of a Navy pilot.
“I probably had a Kelly McGillis haircut,” Johnston laughed.
Things aren’t always as they are depicted in Hollywood however, and it wasn’t long before she got her first crash courses on just how different civilian and military life can be.
For starters, the young, carefree art major considered flip-flops and a tank top appropriate attire for a quick trip to the commissary. She discovered all too quickly that the Navy believes otherwise. She represents her husband, who represents the military, and a dress code is to be followed, even if all you are doing is picking up a gallon of milk.
As someone “who thought rules were something to be loosely followed,” it was a difficult adjustment to make. And like many young Navy spouses, Johnston also struggled with basic communication. Branches of the military are rife with abbreviations common to everyday speech and the Navy is no exception.
“We have a different language; all those acronyms,” Johnston said.
But those early hardships would pale in comparison to later challenges. In their 23 years of marriage, Johnston estimates her husband has been away on deployment at least one-third of that time. He’s been called away to serve in multiple conflicts, from Kosovo and Iraq to Afghanistan twice, flying more than 235 combat missions.
In 2001, Capt. Johnston was working for the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations at the Pentagon. Although he was not in the building when it was struck by an aircraft piloted by terrorists, Johnston said she went through all the anxiety and fear of the unknown until she received the phone call that he was OK.
“That was the craziest day of my life,” she said.
The learning curve isn’t as steep for all Navy spouses, however. David Lowther, who’s been married to Navy nurse Lt. Cmdr. Joell Lowther for the past 14 years, had the benefit of past military experience. Having served eight years in the Coast Guard, he knew what he was signing up for.
“I had a really good idea of what I was getting into,” Lowther said.
But that hasn’t made some aspects of military life any easier. In 2010, his wife deployed to Afghanistan, spending time at the forward operating bases Camp Payne and Camp Leatherneck. He would spend 11 months as a single father.
Another trial has been coping with the loss of jobs. When his wife was transferred to NAS Whidbey Island, he had to leave behind one of the best he’s ever had. He searched for months for something comparable in Oak Harbor but eventually settled on a job selling retail.
Lowther admits he couldn’t help but feel a little bitterness over the loss. While he’s always been careful to keep any negative feelings to himself, it’s hard to go from making over $40 an hour to a job that pays minimum wage.
“That’s a hard shift to make,” he said.
A rich life
Heartache, sacrifice, disappointment, even resentment can be common among military spouses. Johnston has experienced them all. One of the most memorable disappointments occurred in 1993. She and a handful of other Navy wives had flown to the South of France to meet their husbands at a port of call.
The aircraft carrier was within sight of land when Johnston received a crushing phone call. The ship was being called away for an emergency and hearts ank as the wives watched the ship slowly turn around and head back out to sea.
“There was screaming, there was crying,” Johnston said. “The skipper’s wife locked herself in a bathroom.”
But both Johnston and Lowther say that such challenges are not the sum of their experiences as Navy spouses. Each has good memories that are just as vivid as those that were trying. And the irony is that many were the direct result of the difficulties.
For example, while constant moves are undeniably hard on families, some of Johnston’s fondest memories are of driving cross-country to new duty stations with her husband and four children. The laughter, love and precious time spent together as a family will stay with her long after memories of retreating aircraft carriers fade.
Similarly, giving up that great job to relocate to Oak Harbor was difficult for Lowther, but it’s not what he thinks about now. Overshadowing the disappointment has been the time he’s spent with his wife and daughter volunteering at Whidbey Playhouse, or the launch of his second career.
When Lowther lost his job, it spurred him to pursue a dream of becoming a pilot. Thanks to opportunities afforded by his association with the Navy, he’s now an instructor at a flight school on base.
“One door closed and another one opened,” Lowther said.
Johnston and the squadron wives eventually pulled themselves together and went on to spend a memorable vacation in one of the most beautiful places in the world, a trip that would never had been made had it not been for the Navy.
The fact is that unexpected change and upheaval is a part of life for all Navy spouses. To cope with such uncertainty, you have to be able to adjust and keep a positive attitude even in the worst of times, Johnston said.
“It’s putting one step in front of the other,” she said.
Those new to the life shouldn’t be afraid to reach out. Every squadron has information and support networks called family readiness groups. They are an excellent resource for meeting up with other spouses who know firsthand the challenges you may be going through.
Johnston said that perhaps her greatest resource has been the friendships she’s forged with other Navy spouses along the way. Their support is invaluable simply because they understand.
“I have friends from high school that I adore but they don’t get it,” she said.
While this is the modern Navy, Lowther said such groups are still composed mostly of women and have not been a resource he’s relied upon. More helpful to him has been getting involved with the community. Live off base if possible and volunteer at a club or civic group. It’s about staying busy and living a life of your own.
But whatever resources you think may be the best fit for you, the most important thing is to get out there and make the effort, Johnston said. You may be married to the Navy, but it’s still your life and its quality is largely up to you.
“Is it worth it? Yes, a million times yes,” Johnston said. “There are challenges but they can be overcome and your life can be unbelievably rich.”