The disenchantment of wives with military life is prompting many of the best and brightest officers to leave the service. Here Karen Delwiche Von Dollen, 26, of Paso Robles, Calif., details the stresses and strains she has experienced ovr the last five years as a wife of a submariner. Lt. and Mrs. Steven Von Dollen have three children: Steven, 4, Susan, 2, Andrew, 1.
I went to Notre Dame College in Baltimore so I could be near Steve while he went to the Naval Academy. We had being going together since high school. We were both voted most likely to succeed in our class. We were married on June 12, 1976, right after he was commissioned. I was determined to succeed as a good Navy wife even though it was an entirely different kind of life for me.
My father is a rancher who has been home for breakfast, lunch and dinner almost every day out of his life. So I didn't have a role model to prepare me for the life of a submarine officer's wife. After my father saw how much Steve was away, he told me than any job which makes a man miss Christmas and his children's birthdays isn't worth having.
Steve was gone three months and home three months while he was assigned to the [nuclear-powered missile submarine] Ethan Allen out of Pearl Harbor. We bought a house in Honolulu. After he went out on his first patrol, my family sent me a ticket so I could spend some time home with them. I saw that first patrol as a challenge that I was going to get through no matter what.
But by the third and fourth patrols, I built up this tremendous resentment while he was gone. I felt there were jobs that daddys were supposed to be around to do, like get the house fixed and help when one of the kids got sick and be there at Christmas. We missed celebrating Christmas together three years in a row.
I learned how to get the house fixed by myself, and do other jobs, and I guess that was good for me. I kept going 24 hours for three days in a row when one of the kids was sick and Steve was gone again. I'd say to myself it shouldn't be like this. I can say Christmas is just another day, but I can't keep saying it. You just don't raise a family this way. I don't want to fight it anymore.
Some things really hurt. When Steve left on his first submarine patrol, our son, Steven, was only eight months old. When Steve came back, Steven was 11 months old. Steven had changed a lot in those three months. I was all excited about showing Steve his son. I got him all dressed up to meet Steve. When Steve came off the ship, I held Steven up and told him to say hello to his Daddy. He just screamed. He was asking who is this new man. That really hurt me.
When you get caught in this home-and-gone cycle, it's a lot of turmoil, a lot of trauma, for the little ones. Steve is a very involved father. That makes it twice as hard on Steven when his Daddy suddenly goes away again. Our other ones are still too young to be aware of his comings and goings. But not Steven. One night Steve is bathing him and riding him piggy-back and the next night he's not there. It's a trauma.
When Steven found out his Daddy had gone, I'd have a little monster on my hands. He wouldn't sleep for the first three nights because his Daddy wasn't there. He would cry at night and throw temper tantrums during the day. If these kinds of things happen to 2- or 3-year-olds, what sort of thing happens to 14- or 15-year-olds? That frightens me.
When poor Steve would come home, I would unleash all this resentment on him. We would spend his first month home working it out; the second month enjoying each other again, and then the third month I would be dreading the fact that he would be leaving again.
This sudden switching of roles when he came home was also very hard. I had been forced to make all the decisions while Steve was away and he would not always agree with them when he got home. Suddenly there is this stranger in the house telling me what to do.
I was proud of what Steve was doing, but what's most intolerable of all is that I don't feel anyone at the top cares what my needs and the needs of my family are. There is no genuine caring. Free medical care? Forget it. It isn't worth it. You wait for hours to see somebody and take pot luck on what doctor you will get. We don't try to use it anymore for the children.
There's such insensitivity. There was no need for us to move as many times as we have, six times in five years. Steve could be doing the exact same job in Hawaii that he is doing here in Norfolk if they had been willing to take the trouble to work it out. Instead we got only four weeks' notice that we had to move from Honolulu. We had to sell our house in such a hurry that we got less money than we would have gotten if we had had more time.
If I had ever felt anyone really cared, it would have made a difference as we made our decision about staying in the Navy. I don't hate the Navy, just its insensitivity. The money isn't bad. That's not why people are leaving the Navy. They have to learn how to plug in the human factor. A corporation planner would do better. For all this insensitivity to be promulgated, there has to be mediocrity somewhere. Why not start at the top