I’ve been in the Navy for 7 1/2 years now. It’s certainly been a roller coaster of good and bad events. Last year, around this time frame, I got orders to the USS Ronald Reagan, a ship that has been recently posted at Naval Base Yokosuka in Japan, a fact that made the news due to protest by the local Japanese populace. I was not very happy with the orders that had been issued to me, but what was coming could not be anticipated by someone who has not been in a naval vessel prior to his arrival.
I was originally meant to be flown into the vessel after receiving some basic courses and orientations for living aboard a vessel as well as for being a newcomer in Japan. But, due to some unfortunate circumstances in which I prioritized my family’s well being instead of the basic living in Japan courses they took me to the boat earlier than anticipated (approximately a full month before expected). I had barely enough time to gather my essentials and uniforms (who needed new items patched on due to my change of station) but, could not grab as much as I’d have liked. This meant I had to prioritize and instead brought with me living essentials such as shampoo (which I lost) and toothpaste (this one, I actually lost twice) that were purchased in case of emergencies (I was smart enough to have anticipated some crazy change of plans). However, the short notice meant that I left things behind (important things like a much touted sleeping bag). At night the ships don’t have much in the terms of insulation and it meant the difference between freezing and sleeping well. This however, was the beginning of a true nightmare.
I believe that it is unfathomable for civilians to imagine how awful life aboard a naval vessel truly is. Indeed most people don’t have to imagine what it is to live/sleep/eat/workout/work/shower/crap/exist within the confines of the same relatively small location. Some people would think it’s prison, but let me tell them right now that calling this a prison would not be doing it a favor (the prisoners have it much better than sailors at least they get better hours and more time to work out). A person once described life on a boat to me as taking a dumpster, painting it gray and living on it for 6 to 10 months every year (this is approximately the closest and most truthful description that could have been said). Needless to say, that being a sailor aboard an U.S. Naval vessel is one of the crappiest circumstances in which a person can find themselves in. But, in order to explain just how bad the circumstances of a U.S. Navy sailor is, an explanation of our life is required.
First of all, the good-byes are some of the most heart breaking events that you will ever experience. When I left my house, there was barely any warning about what the chain of command had planned. I was simply told to get on the vessel and leave. This meant that my wife had barely any chance to prepare herself emotionally for my departure (she originally wanted us to have a nice family dinner the day before). My son who was about to be three, did not quite grasp that this was mandatory and asked me not to say good-bye to him “no say good-bye, father”. It’s heart wrenching when the last image you have of your loved ones is their crying faces in the prospect of such uncertainty (every time we leave, there is a silent understanding that we might never come back). To them, they were totally unprepared for the coming months (and so was I).
So I left, no more words were uttered, and no big celebration was thrown (unlike the home-coming which is a large event , whereas departure is simply packing and leaving). Next thing we all knew, all 5000 were aboard the ship waiting to come back to our loved ones. This is even harder for all of us who were new to the shipboard life. We had no friends, no-one we could confide in, we were completely on our own. It was one of the loneliest moments in my life, and I had to endure (for the sake of my family). The first few weeks on the ship, were the most depressing, you’re not sure of what place you belong in, despair can easily take over and in the face of these scenarios and you can be easily dragged towards depression. From the uncomfortable living conditions, to the horrible work hour schedule (we will speak about these in future articles). It almost seems like a really long and bad nightmare at this point, however unlike in those, we couldn’t just wake up during the especially stressful moments. Yet, somehow we all made it back home.
But, this story does have a positive ending, we all returned alive and well. People are surprisingly resilient creatures, we adapt and overcome. While I don’t think that the shipboard life is something anyone should ever get used to living, it’s good to have that experience under your belt. I have gained a newfound appreciation for my family life, and I’ve gotten a lot more writing material. My wife is happy to have me home, and my son can’t seem to want to stop playing with me. I’ve had a chance to go visit some awesome locations in Japan (a chance that was taken from me due to my departure). I have a thirst for life which had not been there for a long time. The experiences gained on that boat helped shape me into a better person because now I know the definition of terrible.
Take it from me readers, if you want to truly change your perspective in life. Go aboard a naval vessel and live there as the new-guy. You will never be the same person again.
Folks, the sailor has returned and I’m so happy to be back. I got lots of good stories to talk about including an interview with a Korean war survivor from my visit to Busan. I can’t wait to see what the responses are and I hope you’re all having a swashbuckling day!