Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Deployment for Two

Sweet homecoming
I had written three novels of epic fantasy and one medical thriller when I made the decision—finally—to try to get published. For my fifth novel, I knew I wanted to write a love story with a strong female protagonist, but when I began my research into agents and editors, they all called for the same thing—something unique!

At the time, using the Navy as a setting wasn’t an option, a thought, or even a microscopic notion. I had simply never considered it.

I was at such a loss for an idea, I began writing my fourth novel of epic fantasy to fill the time. About six chapters into this new manuscript, now July 2011, the Navy announced it would begin assigning women to submarines. I’ll never forget when my husband looked at me and said, “A woman in the Navy. That’s your story.”

Common advice given to authors is to write what you know. The Navy? I knew this. A love story set in a battle group, particularly with a woman as the main protagonist? Unique. And as a bonus, I knew what it would be like for my protagonist to deploy with someone she loved.

My husband and I met at the Naval Academy and had been married for four years when we deployed together with the USS Nimitz battle group—he on the USS Lake Champlain, a guided missile cruiser, and me on the USS Kansas City, a replenishment oiler. Our first Western Pacific deployment was short by today’s standards, just six months. At that time, in 1993, women were still prohibited from serving on combatant ships, however, a growing number of auxiliary ships were opening their decks to women, including the Kansas City.

My roommate and I were the first women to deploy aboard the Kansas City, members of the air detachment, flying the H-46 helicopter. It was just the two of us, serving with a crew of about 500. Our battle group, now called a carrier strike group, counted four women total—two of our squadron mates were deployed aboard the ammunition ship, USS Shasta—in a task force numbering about 7,000.

Of those 7,000, one was my husband, Bill, who flew the H-60 helicopter. That we were assigned to the same battle group was pure happenstance, a matter of timing more than anything. Because we entered flight school at the same time and eventually received our wings on the same day, the timing of our arrival to our fleet squadrons matched, and our deployment schedules somehow aligned from there—for the first long deployment, anyway.

Bill on the flight deck of the Lake Champlain

Because HOVER takes place in present day, the main characters, Sara and Eric, are able to use email and cell phones to communicate. However, when Bill and I deployed, there was no such thing, not onboard ships, anyway. So we found other ways to communicate. Fortunately for us, the other ships in the battle group relied on the Kansas City for their food, fuel, supply parts and ammunition. We conducted something called CONREP, or connected replenishment, where ships would come alongside ours, lines would be cast between the two to connect them, and hoses run across those lines so we could deliver fuel. During these evolutions, if we weren’t flying, we could wave to each other, while standing on our respective flight decks.

When appropriate, we also talked to each other via the hand-held radios we carried with us for flying, the PRC-90. And when I landed on the Lake Champlain, as we did on daily logistics flights, we took advantage of our in-house “mail delivery system,” otherwise known as passing notes.

Sara and Eric’s story is not the tale of Anne and Bill. Our love story was quite different and maybe there’s another blog article in that. But I drew from our joint experiences in the fabrication of Sara and Eric’s journey, and I’ll briefly touch on one of those angles here—a couple serving in a risky work environment, both in harm’s way. A modern issue, to be sure, now that so many married couples and partners deploy together. 

For example, during work-ups for our deployment, one of our H-46 aircraft had to ditch in the Pacific. Bill was in the cockpit of his H-60, turning on the deck of the Lake Champlain, when the call came that a Sideflare—the call sign for our H-46 helicopter—had gone in the water. Only two Sideflare helicopters were flying that day, so there was a fifty percent chance it was my aircraft. He was about to lift from the deck to provide search and rescue support, when his officer in charge pulled him from the cockpit and replaced him with another pilot. 

Bill remembers that perhaps he may have had a few choice words for his boss for pulling him from a mission. His officer in charge explained that no one knew yet if I was in the helicopter that had gone down. But in Bill’s mind, whether I had been in the bird or not, he felt he should have been able to fly. He clearly remembers the rush of adrenaline and thinking, “A helicopter’s in the water! Let’s go!”

He learned later that I was flying in the second helicopter when the first ditched. In fact, we performed the rescue for the pilot, while the ship sent a small boat to retrieve the remainder of the crew.

The tables were turned during a transit through the Strait of Hormuz, when another helicopter went down, this time at night. Initial reports indicated it was an H-60. As I learned later, Bill did the search for that aircraft, an H-2, which in this case, ended tragically with the deaths of all four crew members.

Comparing notes after each incident, we both admitted reacting in a detached way to those initial reports of helicopters in the water, compartmentalizing and responding to the task at hand of searching for a downed aircraft. The emotional side—What if he/she is in the aircraft?—never kicked in for us.

I want to point out that Sara and Eric react and respond differently than Bill and I would have in several scenes in HOVER, due to the requirements of the story, its arc and plot. But like I said earlier, Sara and Eric are fictional characters in a fictional setting doing things that will hopefully keep the reader turning the pages.

But back to reality, I’ve heard it many times in discussions about integrating women into combat units that men might act differently with women present and vice versa. But what I personally experienced and what we witnessed time and again was consummate professionalism, men and women doing their jobs side by side, just as they were trained. 

Granted, the emotional stakes were higher since we were married. But Bill says that if he ever found himself worrying about me, he would tell himself, “Anne knows what she’s doing. You just need to make sure you know what you’re doing.” I felt the same way, channeling my focus into doing my job well, knowing Bill was doing his, and understanding that worrying wouldn't accomplish much of anything. 

Yes, it was a unique shared experience for a married couple, but the Navy trained us well, and I think we handled it like any professional military service member would, just as our soldiers, sailors and airmen do today.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Women Who Inspire: Interview with Margaret (Marcantonio) Rayburn

Here's another in my continuing series of interviews with women who inspire the strong female protagonists in my novels. This time, meet Margaret Rayburn!

Margaret (Marcantonio) Rayburn graduated with a Bachelor of Science in General Engineering from the US Naval Academy and reported to Navy Recruiting Area Three, Macon, GA. She acted as the Advertising and Marketing Support Officer for three years before transferring to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), Troy, MI, where she served as the Operations Officer. After six years of active duty service, Margaret returned to the civilian sector, remaining in the Naval Reserves for an additional two years, achieving the rank of Lieutenant Commander (O-4). She currently works for a segment of UnitedHealth Group called Optum as a Vice President for Population Health Management Reporting. Margaret lives with her husband, Jeff (USNA '87) and two daughters, Meghan and Michaela, in Eden Prairie, MN - just outside of Minneapolis.  Her son, Joey, is a Navy sailor (ET3) and is completing Nuclear Power School in Charleston, SC. Meghan graduated from Loyola University New Orleans with a Bachelor of Music Therapy in May 2014, and is currently working at her internship in the twin cities area for board certification.  

AW:  Margaret, why the Naval Academy?

MR: My older brother went there—Class of ‘82.  When he was a plebe, I went to visit him during Parent’s Weekend, and I said, “I’m gonna do this!” I was only eleven years old—in sixth grade. I remember my mom’s reaction—something like, “Yeah . . . right.”

AW: Was she surprised that you were still talking about it in high school?

MR: Yeah. But then it was that slow realization that, wow, she’s really serious about this.

AW: Did you apply to any other schools?

MR: Yes, I was accepted at the University of Michigan, and I actually thought that’s where I was going because I hadn't heard back from the Naval Academy. I just assumed I hadn't been accepted.

AW: So what happened?

MR: It turns out they had lost my paperwork. My congressmen called me while I was in the middle of a final exam in government class—this is in May, mind you, one month before Plebe Summer begins—and he told me I had gotten in.

AW: You only had a month’s notice that you were going to the Naval Academy!

MR: Yeah, is that crazy? (laughs)

AW: I would say so! Looking through your biography, it says you served in Troy, MI, at the MEPS [Military Entrance Processing Station].

MR: I was the Operations Officer there. It was a small joint command, and we did the entrance processing for the high school kids coming into the service. They would take their aptitude tests there, get their physicals, all of that.

AW: Was this just for the navy or all of the services?

MR: This was for all of the services. Once the kids knew what they were qualified for, they would pick their job, sign their contract, take their oath of office, and then we’d ship them off to boot camp. In fact, I did the swearing in for these kids.

AW: You mean like, “I, Jane Smith, do solemnly swear. . .”

MR: Yep. I did that for thousands of new service members.

AW: Thousands? How many people did you process through your command?

MR: Oh, gosh. Probably fifteen hundred kids a month.

AW: Fifteen hundred per month! 

MR: Yeah, we were a busy place. We probably had eighty kids per day coming in for physicals.

AW: I had no idea. But you know, that is really kind of cool. Taking the oath of office is a big deal. I mean, it’s the common starting point for all of us—regardless of service, regardless of rank—and you were the one administering this to umpteen thousand kids.

MR: I guess you’re right. We always had families coming in to watch and take pictures. It was a pretty big event for most.

AW: And you were the one starting them on their journeys. That really strikes a chord with me. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a parent. It’s like sending your kids off into the big, wide world to start their lives.

MR: Yeah, I know what you mean. Each swearing in ceremony was a proud moment for me.

AW: After your tour at the MEPS, you transitioned into the civilian world and went to work for Electronic Data Systems as a business analyst. Was that an easy transition or did you find any difficulty there?

MR: The transition wasn’t so bad. It was almost the same work-wise. I just wasn’t wearing a uniform anymore. But the weirdest thing was that the hierarchy was gone. I was so used to my chain of command in the navy. You always knew your place. You knew who you went to if you needed something. So that took some getting used to.

AW: How about the hiring process? I’ve heard over and over from others how their military experience didn’t open the doors for them as they thought it would.

MR: Yeah, that part was frustrating. I had just left a smaller command, but due to the way it was structured, I actually held a rather high position—almost like an executive officer. I was responsible for an awful lot of people. But when I went to interview, I was told I didn’t have management experience. I explained that I lead so many people—I can’t remember the exact number now—but they countered that it wasn’t the same thing. I basically didn’t get any credit for my leadership experience, so I had to start at the bottom rung of the company and work my way back into a management position. In fact, I had to take a fifty percent pay cut from what I was making in the military.

AW: Ouch. So I realize I’m skipping around here, but your husband, Jeff, is a Class of ’87 grad. Did you meet him at school or later?

MR: We actually met at school, in the Catholic Choir. I went to a Superintendent’s reception at the end of our plebe year, and I met him there. We weren’t in uniforms or anything, so it was somewhat of a normal meeting, I guess you would say. We’ve been together ever since.

AW: That means when you were a youngster, you were dating a firstie with a car! Lucky!

MR: I know! He had a brand new mustang. It was sweet.

AW: I’m laughing because Bill and I just walked around downtown Annapolis in our uniforms for our “dates.” So do you have a favorite memory of the Naval Academy? 

MR: You mean besides graduation? (laughs) Oh, let’s see. I would say it was plebe year right after we beat Army [in football]. Everything was fairly lax at school after that. Everyone was happy heading into Christmas break. Remember how they gave us carry-on? No chopping. No yelling. It was almost like a normal college, and it was the first time I hadn't felt like a plebe.

AW: I absolutely remember that! 

MR: Our room faced out onto Goat Court [a courtyard within the walls of Bancroft Hall—the dormitory that houses the brigade of midshipman]. As plebes, we weren’t allowed to have stereos or music, but after the Army-Navy game, the upperclassmen would put their stereos in the windows and play Christmas music. I remember opening our window to listen to the music, and it was heaven. I felt so happy—like a normal human being.