I have been watching and experiencing Navy deployment reunifications for decades. As a clinical social worker, I’ve talked to many Sailors and families about what they can expect following a deployment. The first deployment I personally experienced was in the mid-90s when my now-husband and I first started dating. His Japan-based ship was completing a scheduled five-month deployment. In those days, families knew the date the ship was leaving, the date they would return, as well as dates and locations of every port visit while they were out. Schedules were put out months in advance and rarely changed.
Fast-forward 20 years and much has changed with Navy ship deployments. These days, the deployment dates and most ship movements are no longer public knowledge and OPSEC (operational security) means dates aren’t advertised. Families only have a general idea when ships will return and it isn’t confirmed until a couple weeks before the ship pulls in. Port visit dates and locations are subject to change and it is no longer common to see large, organized groups of spouses flying to meet the ships in overseas locations. Obviously, much has changed in the world and in the post-9/11 military.
Over time, military families have adjusted to these changes and many don’t have first-hand knowledge of how it used to be. What hasn’t changed is the stress associated with deployments and the anticipation that return from deployments brings. Every deployment experience is different – where you live, how old your children are, how long the deployment lasts, the amount of support you have in your community. These are just some of the factors that impact how a family (and a Service member) navigates the time they are separated by a deployment. Success managing the challenges of a previous deployment doesn’t ensure that the next one will be smooth – they almost never are.
A few months ago, my husband returned from his most recent deployment. Just as I have every time before, I told myself “This was the hardest deployment I’ve ever been through.” If I’m honest, I don’t feel like it was actually harder than any other before, but I think I had allowed myself to forget what it’s like because it has been almost five years. I anticipated that this deployment would be easier because my two sons are now teenagers and more self-sufficient; one of them even drives. I thought it would be less stressful since I wouldn’t have to find child care if I wanted to go out or have to drive them to soccer games, birthday parties, and play-dates as I had done in the past.
What I hadn’t fully anticipated was the impact that having their father gone would have on my boys. They missed him in a way that was somehow different than before. Even now with the Internet to stay connected, they really missed having him physically present to talk to, help with their homework or go see the newest Star Wars or Marvel movie. (I wouldn’t know a Jedi from an Avenger.) It was definitely harder than any of us had anticipated and made me regret the ‘been there, done that’ attitude I went into the deployment with.
Towards the end of the deployment, we found out the ship would be hosting a “Tiger Cruise” for friends and family members. A Tiger Cruise is an opportunity for civilians (with the exception of spouses) to ride a ship the last few days of deployment. Usually, the ship pulls into a port near their homeport, picks up the “Tigers” and then the families get to experience shipboard life and see what their loved ones do for a couple of days.
My sons had the opportunity to meet the ship in Mayport, Florida and ride back to the homeport of Norfolk, VA – a short trip only lasting three days and two nights. When I met the ship in Norfolk, it was amazing to see how meaningful those few days had been for them. Even though they had lived their whole lives around the Navy, living on military bases and moving every few years, they told me they felt like they really had “no idea” what their father did when he went to the ship every day. When they got back, they shared with pride what it was like seeing all the Sailors on the ship working together each day. They couldn’t believe it when they saw the amount of responsibility given to Sailors not much older than they are. It gave them a new perspective on the Navy. Seeing dolphins following the ship, watching the guns shoot, and having the chance to watch as the ship pulled alongside the oiler to refuel are experiences they’ll never forget.
Something about that experience made our family reunification much smoother. We didn’t experience the somewhat awkward moments that sometimes occur when reconnecting with a loved one you haven’t seen in many months. As with every deployment, we were all slightly changed from the experience but this time, my boys felt like they had played a bigger part in supporting their father. They weren’t simply watching and waiting on the pier, as they had many times before. This time they were on the ship observing the focus, concentration, and teamwork needed to get a 10,000-ton ship safely into port, plus the excitement that comes with returning home from months overseas.
Whether the Tiger is a son, daughter, father, mother, brother, or sister of a Sailor, they all come back with an incredible appreciation of what its like to be at sea, even if only for a few days. It is almost a cliché among Service members that people who haven’t been on deployment or downrange can’t begin to understand what it is like. The Navy is probably unique among the services that civilians are able to experience a small piece of the deployment by participating in a Tiger Cruise.
So while Navy ships don’t actually have tigers onboard, if you’re fortunate enough to experience a Tiger Cruise for yourself, it can make the reunification after deployment a whole lot easier and create a special connection that will last a lifetime.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
April Thompson, LCSW, is a clinical social worker currently working as a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Trainer at the CDP at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USU) in Bethesda, Maryland.