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.


  1. Once again, I am consumed by the history of my coaches and more inspired by their professionalism and drive to change the "normal" You are correct in that professionalism approach, the couple should not place the dependent stereotyping into professional military life. My coach was a Phrog driver!! I rode in that same aircraft 4 times in Korea during exercises in 1990... rough ride compared to our normal 60.

  2. What fun reading! I can't wait to read your novel.

  3. Thank you, Sally. Glad you enjoyed the article!