It's back to just the boys in my house, as a couple weeks ago two ships pulled in their lines and headed out for summer patrol, taking my wife with them and making our already small base feel downright deserted.
The operational tempo is very different for the forward deployed ships, as are the rhythms of life for the dependents. We joke that we're the ones living in Japan, where our sailors and Marines just happen to visit us from time to time. For the few short weeks she's home, I'm planning as many nights out and weekend trips as we can handle. Our worries are that a crisis or natural disaster anywhere in the region will send the ship back to sea on short notice, or that the smallest hiccup in the in the ship's compressed maintenance schedule will force late nights on the ship or weekends at work to meet already tight deadlines.
While a ship stateside can expect months of maintenance and workups between major deployments, the ships here are assured of 8-9 months underway, year in and year out. I can't say that the departures and homecomings aren't special, but they definitely lose some of their gravity when you have three or four of them a year.
As a newcomer, some of the best advice I received was from a spouse who has spent most of the last decade here - she told me not to plan our adventures in Japan around my wife's schedule, because the schedule here never, ever holds up. The ships are always one major typhoon, earthquake or tsunami away from throwing out their schedule to go on a disaster relief mission, and it's a rare year that the Pacific rim doesn't see one or more of those.
There are advantages of being stationed here - ships deployed to the Persian Gulf tend to see Bahrain and Abu Dhabi again and again for port visits, while our sailors find themselves in Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney and Bangkok. Unfortunately, I'm not seeing any of those places -- it's very expensive to fly around Asia from Japan, especially with a little one. when a spouses ask me about flying out to meet the ship, I have to warn them to plan the trip as if they're going alone and feel lucky if their sailor is there to meet them.
After being here over a year, we've gotten used to the routine (or as is usually the case, the LACK of a routine), even if we're not as experienced as the families who have spent three or four or even five years forward deployed. Some days I feel like we've just arrived, yet I'm handing out advice to newcomers and helping people get away from the base and discover some of the same adventures we have.
You learn fast not to worry about negative rumors coming from the ship, because the bad news is probably old news before we ever hear about it back in port. I've also learned that "we don't know where we'll be in three months" isn't special code for "we're not telling you" -- most of the time, it means that it's really out of the ship's hands.
Throughout my wife's career, I've always been a believer that the best way my family can cope with separation is to have our own lives. It's a lesson I wish I could pass on to more non-military folks. Theo spends his days in a Japanese preschool and at the pool, while I volunteer, do my best to keep touch with our friends around the world and train hard for my upcoming races. Sometimes, keeping myself sane means doing my best to avoid the people who thrive on negativity, can't deal with the shifting schedules and seem to think their family life is more important than the ship's mission.
It's a different life than sea duty in the states, to be sure. Our Navy community here is so close-knit and supportive -- and living in Japan has been such a positive experience for my son and I -- that I wouldn't trade it for anything.
We just got the happy news that we will remain OCONUS for my wife's next tour, this time in Europe, where our family will get even more chances to immerse ourselves in the culture and travel. As much as we'll miss Japan, we thrive on the new experiences!
(U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Greg Johnson)