Summer Harrington is watching television when a commercial for the United States Navy comes on. In a vibrantly hip presentation that would rival anything on MTV, images of action and adventure are juxtaposed with vignettes of clean-cut young adults pursuing higher education before a suitably enthusiastic voice urges its prey to “let the journey begin.”
Summer grimaces-she knows all about journeys. In the space of two years she has been uprooted from her hometown in Colorado and moved twice within the state of Virginia, before being yanked back across the country and deposited here in San Diego. For all her journeys, 21-year-old Summer isn't even in the Navy. But her boyfriend is.
San Diego is teeming with women who have crossed states and borders and left behind jobs and families and friends to be with the men they love. And some of them, like Summer, are a little disgruntled about it. “I'm here because this is where my boyfriend's ship was stationed, and I want to be with him,” she says, “but I wouldn't be here otherwise. I‘m not particularly happy.”
As a licensed cosmetologist trained in Colorado, Summer left behind a well-paying job in Virginia when she decided to accompany Tony, her 23-year-old boyfriend, out to San Diego when his ship arrived here last November. Thinking she could simply find another position in her field, as she had done easily when she moved from Colorado to Virginia, Summer had relatively few qualms about the impact the move would have on her career.
“I could practice cosmetology in Virginia in much the same way I had practiced it in Colorado, because the required amount of schooling was the same,” she says, “but once I arrived in California, I realized it was one of the few states where I didn't have enough training to qualify for a job.”
The hours of schooling required to obtain a California state cosmetology license are significantly higher than in the majority of other states, a factor that has Summer frustrated. “It's a vicious circle,” she says, “I don't have enough schooling to take the tests I need to pass to be able to practice cosmetology in California, but to get those extra few hours of schooling costs money, and I don't have the money because I haven't got a job that pays enough-because I haven't got enough training to get one.”
This Kafkaesque situation has forced Summer to take jobs that are, she feels, not only undeserving of her talents but that pay less and occupy more of her time. Working mornings-and sometimes nights-at Ralphs, afternoons at McDonalds, and with plans to attend a community college at the beginning of next year, Summer has barely enough time to sleep, let alone spend time with her boyfriend. And while bagging groceries and shoveling French fries are undoubtedly ways of earning an honest wage, Summer has suffered what she estimates to be a 50 percent pay cut since moving out to San Diego.
“I'm very bitter about it,” she confesses, “I feel so demeaned. I know my paycheck doesn't define me as a person, but it's horrible because I know I can do better.”
Very occasionally, and usually only during those middle-of-the-night moments of self-doubt, Summer will find herself second-guessing her decision to move to San Diego. “I'm still trying to form myself at the moment,” she confesses, “and sometimes I feel like I'm putting myself on hold to be out here.”
She pauses and looks down at her hands, callused from stacking shelves all night. “I cry a lot more now.”
Sara Gillette, 28, whose husband is on the same ship that brought Summer's boyfriend out to San Diego, certainly knows how that feels. Having practiced as a pharmacist for five years, she has now found herself unemployed. California, she explains, is one of two states in the country which fail to recognize her pharmacy license as a valid qualification, without forcing her to submit to a rigmarole that involves a trip up to San Francisco, fingerprinting, testing and vast sums of money.
“I feel useless out here,” she says. “I'm trained in one field and I can't use the skills I've been taught. It's extremely shaming to be unemployed, especially after I have been relatively successful. I didn't even want to go to my class reunion because I couldn't face telling everyone that I don't have a job out here.”
Sara admits that her unemployment has tested the bounds of her relationship with her husband Greg. “When the guys move from place to place,” she explains, “their jobs stay the same, their friends stay the same-nothing changes but the scenery. I don't think Greg really understands how worthless I feel out here. Truthfully, it puts a lot of pressure on us. It's not so much that my misery is his fault, more that my happiness seems to become his responsibility. And that's quite a large albatross to have strung around your neck.”
For every woman who resents the impact of her partner's involvement in the Navy, there is another, like 26-year-old Jessica Battle, who takes pride in it. A native of San Diego, Jessica had been married to her husband Robert for four months when he was transferred to Guam. Ten days after they arrived, Robert left for a six-week stint at sea, and several days later, Jessica-who was then 22 and thousands of miles away from her family-discovered she was pregnant with their first child.
“It was very difficult,” she says, “because Guam is in the middle of nowhere, and my husband was on a program where he was out for six weeks and then home for 10 days. The whole two years we were in Guam, he was there maybe six or seven months in total.”
But Jessica rose to the challenge, setting up accommodation, choosing a car and making the house welcoming for Robert's return. When it was time for the baby's birth, she engineered his time off and bought a ticket for him to meet the ship in Japan so that he could be present for the big day.
Still, she admits, her husband's constant departures did make something of a dent in her implacable stoicism. “Robert left when our baby was 2 weeks old,” she remembers, “He came back briefly when the baby, Gerald, was 6 weeks old-was there for ten days-and then didn't come back until he was 4 months old. When I was up at 3 o'clock in the morning, with the baby crying and no one to help me, I did resent him a little.” She shrugs. “You get angry, but you have to keep in the back of your mind that you signed up for this. This is what you should be expecting.”
After two years in Guam, Robert was stationed back in San Diego where he is now on shore duty and-much to the delight of Jessica, who is now pregnant with their second child-comes home every night. Still, she is adamant that she has sacrificed nothing to her husband's career.
“I think, in fact, that I've benefited from Robert being in the Navy,” she muses. “I've become far more independent. Moving to Guam and having to make friends and live in and out of hotel rooms was frightening, but it forced me to be self-sufficient. I'm much stronger now. I've done things I never would have had the guts to do.”
Jen Savage, a 23-year-old dental assistant who moved down to San Diego from the Bay Area to be with her Navy boyfriend Mike would undoubtedly agree with Jessica. “I'm definitely happier down here,” she says, showing me the bedroom of her 4-year-old daughter Ashlen, which, in addition to the usual little-girl paraphernalia, is decorated with countless pictures of Ashlen's father, Ryan, with whom she now maintains a close relationship.
“While Ashlen and I were living with my parents up north,” Jen says, “I always felt like I was living off them. I wanted to move out and have some independence from them, to be able to raise Ashlen myself, but I could never get up the courage to do it, until I met Mike. We'd been together five months and he was down in San Diego, and when he asked me to join him, it all fit together. It gave me the incentive to do what I needed to do.”
Jen confesses to a tinge of regret at moving Ashlen away from her biological father but she believes her actions gave him the incentive to get involved in his daughter's life. “As soon as I said I was taking Ashlen to San Diego, he tried to sue me for custody,” she remembers. “He lost, of course, but I'm glad that he's a part of her life now, that our moving was the catalyst for that.”
When asked if she resents Mike for suggesting she come down to San Diego and move Ashlen farther from her father, Jen shakes her head vehemently. “I haven't sacrificed; I've benefited. If anything, I'd thank him for moving me down here, because I've reclaimed some of my independence.”
But Jen, unlike Summer and Sara, was able to transfer her career seamlessly to Southern California. “Everything I was doing up there, I'm able to do down here,” she admits. “It's been a fairly smooth transition, career-wise.” A dental assistant in Ocean Beach by day, Jen earns enough to attend night classes at Mesa College, where she is hoping to get her associate's degree and then transfer to a four-year dental school. “I'm doing much better for myself down here,” she says. “I'm starting afresh, but I'm still able to keep the career I had up north. I've barely been uprooted at all.”
The ease with which Jen could shift her career from Northern to Southern California perturbs Sara, who resents the complicated formalities involved in pursuing her own career. “I really believe there is bias in California towards people out of state,” Sara asserts. “There is a huge pharmacist shortage out here, and yet they don't make it any easier for people to practice pharmacy.”
Summer, who was told she needed a California driver's license in order to be considered for the majority of jobs for which she applied, agrees. “There's so much red tape in the way if you're not a California resident,” she says. “It just makes everything worse.”
And after two years in Guam, Jessica moved back to San Diego with her 8-month-old son to await her husband's return in her familiar hometown, living three miles from her mother. “It's so much easier to be a Navy wife when you're in an area you know,” she admits.
“Wife,” it seems, might be the operative word in this situation. Jessica and her husband were only dating when the orders came for him to move out to Guam, and she remembers that “there was no way I was going to go overseas without being married. I needed that permanence, that reassurance.”
Sara agrees wholeheartedly. “Being married, I'm that much more stable,” she asserts. “You've got to be able to count on something, and my marriage is the only thing I can count on when we're moving all over the place. It's a kind of insurance. Or maybe an assurance.”
Navy girlfriends, she believes, are on much shakier ground. “If I get into a fight with my husband,” she says, “we're still married-we can't just break up. But if he was my boyfriend, fighting with him on top of being unhappy out here might just be the straw that broke the camel's back. And then where would I be? I would have moved out here for nothing.”
Summer, however, doesn't believe that she moved out here for nothing, despite her less binding commitment to her boyfriend. “It's an investment,” she says. “You make this sacrifice now because you know it will pay off later. For me to leave, just because I didn't have such a good job here, or because I wasn't so happy here, I'd be throwing away the future for the sake of the moment.” And so she will stay.
In fact, all four women will stay-until the time comes for them to pack up the U-Haul and move to the next place. “I guess it's dedication,” says Summer.
Sara nods. “It's just my duty,” she agrees. “It's a commitment I've made.”
And for Jessica, who relentlessly supports her husband's career while juggling her own obligations as a mother, it is a matter of pride. In fact, the most interesting thing about these women is that, ironically, they each seem to embody the exact values-dedication, duty, commitment, pride-that their partner's careers promote. “It's actually like you signed up for the Navy, too,” laughs Jessica. “You have to display those skills, just in a different capacity.”
Neither Jessica nor Sara feel they have been coerced into the role of submissive housewife. “Yes, I'm seven and a half months pregnant,” Jessica declares, “but I'm not barefoot and in the kitchen. I've got my own money, I do accounting work, I take care of all the finances at home. I may even go back to school and train to be an accountant after the baby is born.”
It becomes increasingly apparent that despite the somewhat pejorative stereotypes that might surround them, the partners of Navy servicemen are not passive accessories to their career-driven, globetrotting other halves. “We're not following men,” Summer explains. “We're recognizing where the potential lies in the relationship and following that. It's much easier to stay at home where everything is comfortable and familiar than it is to give up everything for one person and trust that it's going to be worth it.”
Jen's boyfriend, Mike, 25, admits that a great deal of the success of their relationship is due to her moving down to San Diego to be with him. “Honestly, if she hadn't moved here, I probably would have given up a lot sooner,” he says. “Doing the long-distance thing was hard enough for five months.”
Mike has promised Jen that he will move with her wherever she decides to go to dental school. Jessica and Sara are adamant that if the situation were reversed, their husbands would not only follow them in a heartbeat but would stay at home while they went out to work.
Summer, however, is more cautious: “I don't think Tony would move with me if I was in the Navy and he wasn't. In most other cases, yes, but not for that. I'd be gone a lot of the time, and he'd be in the minority. I don't think he'd do it.”
However, an e-mail to Summer's boyfriend, asking him whether he would actually follow her if the tables were turned, gets an immediate reply that consists of seven capitalized and italicized words: “OF COURSE I WOULD. ARE YOU KIDDING?”
Nevertheless, Summer's assumption raises an important point: as a phenomenon, the Navy wife is a lot more common than the Navy husband. “It's more typical for women to uproot themselves for their partners,” she says. “There are enough women in the same situation in San Diego that when you tell people you've moved here because your boyfriend or husband is in the Navy, they will immediately tell you that their sister or their daughter or their old college roommate did the same thing. We have a lot more support as women.”
Support, in fact, seems to be inherent to the Navy lifestyle. “Just because we're women, we know there will be other women there to help us,” decides Sara, “but, you know, I don't necessarily think that's right. I like to think I'm independent, but sitting around with 20 other women and all being miserable about your husbands being away, that doesn't seem very independent to me. I'm reluctant to be a part of that Navy wife circle.”
Jessica is quick to refute this stereotypical image. A moderator for the refreshing and positive Web site www.CinChouse.com, she is hoping to bust the myth that Navy support groups are circles of miserable donut-eating, coffee-sipping, housedress-wearing women who gather in a dingy church basement to complain about their husbands' careers.
“The great thing about CinChouse is that it doesn't matter if you're married to your military partner or not,” she explains. “Our site is for any woman who has moved to a new place because of the military, doesn't know anyone, and just wants to get involved. We're just a bunch of girlfriends who help each other out.”
And, she adds, there are no flowered housedresses or bleating testimonials allowed. “We try to keep it very positive,” she says. “We have a section on the Web site called ‘Whine And Cheese,' where you can gripe about the fact that your husband hasn't called in five days, but CinChouse is about more than that. We're a whole network of friends reaching out. There's no reason to sit in the house anymore and say you don't know anyone in San Diego.”
Several weeks later, Summer calls to say she has seen another commercial for the Navy. “It's not ‘Let the journey begin' anymore,” she says. “Now their new slogan is ‘Accelerate your life.'”
There is a long pause before she speaks again. “Well, I don't think I'm exactly accelerating my life by being here. But perhaps I'm not stepping so firmly on the brakes as I thought I was.”