When Stacey and Terry Tyson made their way to Washington in October to the first duty station of Stacey's Navy career, "My finances were so bad," 22-year-old Stacey remembered, "the Navy didn't know what to do with me." First they lurched through the Middle Atlantic states from their Kentucky home in a broken-down green Plymouth Terry had pieced together. Then they arrived in the Nation's Capital with a 3-year-old daughter, a $10 piano and so little money they had to stay free in a Navy lodge for three weeks. Desperate, Stacey drew out $900 of back pay and advance pay to set up an apartment. The money was promptly stolen.
Eventually, like so many others who cannot afford housing elsewhere, they found their way to the Bellevue Enlisted Housing Area in Southwest D.C., where they are now fairly typical of the 398 Navy and Marine families who live there. Built in 1940-41 as a temporary housing for what is now the Navy Research Lab, Bellevue is the only Navy-provided family housing on the 13 bases in the Washington metropolitan area, except for a handful of Navy homes on adjacent Bolling Air Force Base.
More than just free enlisted housing, however, Bellevue is a community apart in the D.C. area, where the ranks are lower, the spouses younger and the money tighter than probably any other military installation in high-powered, high-pressure Washington. According to a 1978 Navy study of the community by an anthropologist, "The predominant and overriding theme was that of fear" -- of the people in the area, high living costs and even of other military personnel of disparate ethnic backgrounds.
Contrary to the stereotype of gold-braided, medal-bedecked officers of the Pentagon, the average-ranked active duty enlisted man or woman at Bellevue is ranked E-4, or third class petty officer -- midway through the enlisted ranks. Having to support a family on $603.60 base pay each month makes Bellevue residents feel economically closer to their Anacostia neighbors than their military brethren. And the difference between popular images and the realities of life at Bellevue is the cause of some tension in the tiny, isolated community inside the Anacostia-Bolling tract that some D.C. cab drivers wryly call "the "the Reservation." Like a reservation, the social problems are enormous.
"Everybody's worrying about paying the rent; well, we don't have any rent but we're still starving," said Terry Tyson in his faint Kentucky drawl. "People say, 'You're in the military and the military's supposed to take care of everything.' But we're still literally starving."
A part-time electronics student with the equivalent of a high school diploma, Terry, 25, is unemployed, as are about half the Bellevue spouses. Thus Stacey's E-2 seamen's apprentice pay of $558.60 a month must cover all food and clothing costs, her husband's tuition, automobile expenses and the $120 monthly cost of daughter Candy's child care. They pay $100 each month toward the emergency loan they took out to cover the costs of their move and the theft, and to pay a $50 to $70 monthly phone bill "because we're young," like many Bellevue families, and far from their roots in the city they still pronounce as "Looville," rather than Louisville.
Before they moved to Bellevue they paid $192 a month for a subsidized Mount Vernon apartment where winter utility costs for the stay-at-home baby and husband cost as much as the apartment. Living apart from other military personnel and unable to carpool, Stacey had to drive to her data processor's job in the Navy Annex -- "when the car ran," she said, leaving Terry with only a bike for transportation. Sixty dollars in food stamps each month have helped, but there is so little left over that friends and the USO donated most of their furniture.
So buffeted were the Tysons from their short stint of living "on the economy," or off-base, that their move to rent-free Bellevue was a godsend. But other families, particularly wives, liken a stay at Bellevue to a sentence in jail. "I just cried," said Dale Jovero, a four-year resident with two children. Married 10 years to a Navy yeoman, Jovero had lived in San Diego; Brunswick, Ga.; and Norfolk, Va. -- all slower-paced bases with close community life.
Jovero's first few months at Bellevue were miserable. "Even the housing was different," she said. "It was totally run-down. I didn't know anybody; I just sat in the house and read. It was very depressing."
Jovero lived in one of the small, boxlike houses covered in slightly different shades of green aluminum siding and grouped in square plots called "greens." Named with nautical jargon like Knot and starboard, the monotonous greens are relieved only by small clusters of jonquils and begonias, and, as often as not, the brightly colored maternity dresses worn by the many pregnant women.
Starting in November 1979, the Navy began renovations at Bellevue at a cost of $1.4 million, improving the foundations and sliding, building larger units and prettying the landscaping. But more importantly, Jovero pointed out, Bellevue lacks many of the amenities that make a military life more bearable.
Built as temporary housing and never expected to remain in use, according to Navy Public Affairs Director Lt. j.g. Shelley Cruze, Bellevue has none of the resources of Bolling Air Force Base, its larger and more attractive neighbor. There is no coin-operated laundry or corner store to buy a forgotten carton of milk or diapers. City Metrobuses do not stop on the grounds. Although Bellevue residents may buy discount groceries at Bolling's commissary, cool off at the marina and swimming pools, or relax at Bolling's racquetball and tennis courts or arts and crafts room, many of the women say they feel psychologically alienated from Bolling -- which serves a different arm of the services -- and from which they are separated by a barbed wire-tipped fence.
The stores are also distant, about a mile and half from Bellevue. "It's all right if you have a car that your husband doesn't take to work during the day," said Jovero, "but transportation during the day is bad. You try dragging two kids,"
"I've seen more than one woman walking in the rain to get her child an ice cream," added Christine Smythe, director of the Bellevue Outreach Center run by the USO.
Nor can Bellevue residents use the Bolling outpatient clinic, or, in an emergency, call one of the ambulances that serve the base, unless the enlisted person also works at Bolling. Few do. "That's not an Air Force problem," explained Sgt. Joseph Elder, Bolling's public affairs officer. "We have 2,000 housing units. You're talking about quite a few military families that this small clinic has to make appointments for. For any inpatient care, our people have to drive to Andrews (Air Force Base), too."
Elder, along with other officials, pointed out that the problems are no different for the Bellevue spouses than for civilians living on moderate salaries. A Navy officer who asked not to be named agreed, saying, "Listen, a lot of the problems over there have nothing to do with the military. It's in the marriage. A lot of these guys want to keep their wives at homes. A lot of them don't want to tell their wives how much they make; they want to keep their sweet little thing going."
Still, many wives say the core of complaints lies with transportation for women who either cannot drive, whose husbands must use the family car or who dislike negotiating city buses with young children. Underlying the complaints, however, are a range of fears harbored by the many young and not-so-young brides from small towns -- fears of local blacks, of becoming lost, of the entire metropolitan area.
"I don't go anywhere without my husband," said Tammy Keyes, a 22-year-old newlywed from Pittsburgh, "I'm not used to this city, I don't want to go roaming around by myself. It's the people," said Keyes, who is black. "They look like they're ready to kill you," she said, to the sympathetic nods of the other women who were listening. "If you go downtown to one street, it's all porno places. It's not like Pittsburgh."
"I never go shopping over the hill (outside the Bolling entrance gate)," added Carol Moore, wife of a Navy yeoman. "Eveything you need is right there (at Bolling). I have been to the zoo once, but I found it by accident." Pilar Stan, from Spain, wasn't afraid to go out when she arrived, she said, but soon learned to be. "I'm used to my country," she said in her heavy, syncopated accent. "Plus, everybody's paranoid. My husband is the first one. He (says), "This is not your country, this is D.C. You don't open the door.' I go out with my husband or with friends, not by myself."
Tammy Mossbarger, a mother of two and a week away from her 17th birthday, has never been on a city bus or subway and has visited the Mall only once in the year she has lived in Washington. While not necessarily typical of Bellevue women, she has experienced most of the problems. Married at 15, she had never been away from home before. When she arrived in the area from rural Ohio, she never left her small apartment in Clinton, Md. "We were close by these bars and people were always getting drunk and having shootings there," she said. "I didn't want to go out. I just cried all the time."
Pregnant with her second child, she went into labor while her husband was at work at Andrews. "They didn't give him the messages," she believes, until her water broke. He then had to drive a half hour each way to collect her and take her to the hospital. The child, now two months old, still weighs the 8.2 pounds he weighed when he was born, and Mossbarger doesn't know why. Doctors at Andrews gave her an explanation about the baby's spleen that she does not understand.
Now that her Marine husband is away on a temporary assignment, Mossbarger has become the tacit ward of other, older women at Bellevue, who donate clothes and baby paraphernalia, look after her when she is ill and generally provide the extended family she left at 15 in Piketown, Ohio. And that, the community generally agrees, is the saving grace of life at Bellevue.
"This is where I met all met all my friends," said Mossbarger, gesturing around the USO office. In the three years the Bellevue Outreach Center has been open, it has become a focal point for community activities and friendships that replace homesickness and feelings of isolation. The outreach center operates a clothing exchange, keeps lists of jobs and baby sitters, and works with civilian and Navy groups to help residents get food stamps or other services. Outreach workers, who are volunteer residents, also make a point of greeting newcomers and slipping newsletters under doors to entice often desperately lonely people out of their homes. "I had nothing to do until the USO opened," Jovero recalled.
And the Navy itself, say administrators, is spurred by a new committment to the needs of the family. "The old saying was that if the Navy wanted you to have a wife they would have issued you one in your sea bag," said Lt. Cruze. "That's not the way it is now. The Navy realizes it's their responsibility to meet the needs of those families." To that end, a Family Service Center to coordinate resources for Navy families is targeted to open in the Anacostia area next year. Until then, Bellevue residents continue to care for each other, and some of them continue to count the days until they leave.
"We're getting out in May," said Mossbarger. "It isn't like I thought it would be."