“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” ~~ John Milton, Paradise Lost
My wife (at the time) was getting glammed up for another practice with the Okinawan rock-band (Pavlov’s Dogs) she had befriended while I was deployed and who with she was going to sing a gig in the coming weeks. Her being naturally theatrically inclined and blessed with an alluring presence much more than a singing voice, I actively supported this opportunity for her.
“Just don’t sleep with the band,” I half-jokingly commented as I righted her head scarf, readying her to head out into the chilly night air.
But she did…. And so much worse.
I’ve written extensively about my first time living on Okinawa (1999-2001) in Shipwrecked on the Island of Misfit Toys, and this reflection serves as the 2nd installment of what will become a three-part series covering my drastically different flirtations with the Far East. While my first can best be characterized as a fun-filled and zany-at-times misfit adventure, my second foray in Japan bypasses all the shades of gray and takes a much darker turn to black.
My Mother ended up passing away in 2001 while I was half-a-world-away on some stinkin’ gray-hulled ship off the coast of Australia. Her death was expected, and thankfully I had been previously sent home when she was diagnosed with inoperable and rather advanced, terminal lung cancer. Oddly enough, that was my second time home on Emergency Leave within a year from Okinawa, since months prior my brother was diagnosed with advanced stage 3 kidney cancer. It was a tough time on my family, but particularly for my ex.
My spouse, “DJ”’ as she was called, seemed to react increasingly poorly to these crises, particularly to my mother’s death, but these were probably only precipitating events. She entered a very dark time in our collective lives. After a year or two of intense therapy and treatment once we moved back to the states in 2001, she was diagnosed as suffering from intense Bipolar Disorder. In hindsight, it made perfect sense: her highs were what set her apart and made her so intriguingly creative, energetic and attractive, but the days and sometimes weeks of zombie-like lack of participation in life (sans the brains-eating perhaps) was the price everyone had to pay. There was treatment (primarily meds), and slowly, she started to come back to more “normal” life (if there is such a thing) starting in 2003.
My ex and kids had become enthralled with Okinawa during our short time spent living there from 1999-2001, so much so that we jointly and mutually agreed as a family to ask for reassignment back to Japan at the end of my duty in Miami, Florida, in 2004. This was an easy assignment to get; remember, the job I asked for was as the de facto Misfit Toy-in-Charge in the land of many. My Detailer, the officer who assigns jobs out to the fleet was more than eager to “pencil me in” to that specific billet exceedingly early, since filling the job was historically like pulling teeth…from a pissed off rabid cat…with sharpened claws.
Of course I did have some ulterior motives in seeking and taking these orders. Recall at the time that we were intensely engaged in active combat operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Now this isn’t meant to be a discussion focused on politics or even war; suffice it to say that I, back then and now, simply couldn’t support any of our actions in the Middle East, and wanted no part of what has turned out to be insanely bad ideas and perhaps America’s worst decisions of the new century. The military forces I would be assigned to in Okinawa have historically been “fenced” or set aside from potential out-of-area global commitments so that they would always be ready and available to respond to certain likely, more local contingencies. Namely, issues concerning North & South Korea, but more so, supporting Taiwan if China made any aggressive moves. Oh yeah, and there’s the defense of Japan against, uhm, maybe the pissed-off whales that they continue to kill every year under the lame guise of “scientific research.” So, in taking these orders I would return to a treasured 2nd home, and I would not be going to the dessert…either one (take your pick)…again.
Of course when you actively try to dodge an unwanted fate, sometimes you unknowingly dodge right into fate’s crosshairs. So, we show up on Okinawa for the 2nd time in August 2004 and find out that the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which I was tasked to support with Tactical Air Control, was on a no-notice open-ended deployment order for Iraq.
Fate is a bitch. But what I was to learn is that this deployment would be the least of my worries.
The three-ship Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) and 3,500 of my fellow sailors and marines were due to leave within two weeks. Luckily for me, a series of serious typhoons in the area – a common occurrence in “typhoon alley” in every fall – delayed our departure (see Typhoons: A Divinely Okinawan Experience), enough so that I could buy and register the family two vehicles, secure an adequate domicile out in town, and get my pay settled and the kids enrolled in school. I was PISSED at my command, particularly my commanding officer, who elected to tell me NOTHING of this situation prior to my family’s overseas move.
“But it was classified, and we had no way of contacting you through secure means,” my Skipper protested in his defense. “C’mon Skipper, how ‘bout ‘Hey Elvis, might want to leave your family and cats in the states for now….’ It’s not f–king rocket-surgery,” I complained, strongly voicing my disapproval of his lack of concern over my family. I most certainly would have left my family in-place in Miami while I deployed for what turned out to be nearly 8 months; it seems I already sensed that nothing good would come of leaving my ex alone and mentally vulnerable. Let’s just say the charged and colorful conversation with that particularly bad CO was the most insubordinate and disrespectful I’ve ever been while serving on Active Duty. He deserved it. He knew it, and as a result, said – and did little in return.
Off I go to war…again. Ah, the Middle East. I had already spent a year of my life deployed to the region in 1991 and 1993. Now I was going back, this time assigned to the relatively safety of a ship instead of flying into harm’s way. I admit I found myself in an increasingly depressed place. I had not expected to be shipped away from my family for such a long period of time and to a combat zone that I would find almost ridiculous…if it weren’t for Americans spilling their blood and spending our treasure. I held absolutely no support for the undeclared “war” that our privileged politicians elected to fight in Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9-11, and certainly had even less to do with weapons of mass destruction. But under these fanatical tenets that lamely justified our deadly actions, whole masses of people were to be slaughtered.
Finding myself angry most of the time, I spent a lot of time in the ship’s gym. Unfortunately, I seriously injured myself there early in our transit to the Persian Gulf. Tearing a rhomboid muscle in my upper back, I no longer could work out or even be active, which was one of the few things allowing me to hang onto to my already stressed and strained sanity. Worse, at the time there were only two qualified watch officers in the ship’s Tactical Air Control Center (TACC), and I was one of them. As a result, I ended up standing “port and starboard” watch, working for 12 hours a day, every day, week after week. More damaging, my work center more resembled an Okinawan cave than an office: a constantly dark and dank radar room, kept at a morgue-like 60-65 degrees…. You know it’s bad that when you do go outside in the sunlight, your eyes actually HURT from being under fluorescent light for so long.
I’m not afraid of working, but pulling this type of shift-work for six or seven weeks at a time puts a heavy strain on anyone. I found myself staring into the abyss; I was troubled, mentally and physically. I started pulling back and becoming less and less interactive with my friends and shipmates afloat with me.
And while my wife certainly was fighting her own battles back home, our lives were slowly becoming unraveled. It would seem obvious that we would be openly communicating at this difficult juncture in our lives. However, given our individual trials and tribulations, instead of positive, reinforcing and mutually support, neither of us could find the means to back the other.
Yes, or course I am in-part culpable for some, maybe many of the problems that existed between my ex and I; I am clearly no saint and have skeletons in my closet just like everyone else. BUT, I certainly did not turn to promiscuity as a solution. Long before my ex even hinted at her growing displeasure with our marriage, she was already looking for solace in places one shouldn’t – someone else’s bed. Worse, her close friends and family knew, and not one of them actively stepped in to give her some hard advice and tough love. By the time I returned from this deployment, the marriage was lost. I just didn’t know it yet.
Returning back home early in the spring of 2005 due to on-going problems with my neck (bulging disc) stemming from the poorly healed muscle tears in my upper back, DJ acted excited and happy. Maybe she was. However, she had already established her secret, slutty double-life. And like anyone living a lie, it’s not long until the truth comes out. She was caught, sticky-handed as it were, just before Easter in 2004. “Black Friday” is what it became to be known.
She moved out, and took up independent residence a few blocks away from my apartment in Chatan-cho, Okinawa. The kids initially alternated a week there and then a week with me, but ultimately it was decided (against my wishes) that my son would stay with me and my daughter with her mother. We even split our two cats. Splitting the family was bad enough, but my ex’s repeated seconds at her all-you-could-eat “buffet of boys” constantly and readily available on Okinawa was where we both, I believe, bottomed-out.
She claimed to be “in love” with a punk she met in a bar. Her relationship with this newly proclaimed “soul mate” – the 2nd soul mate on the island counting the lead singer of the band mentioned in this blog’s opening – is a tale as old as time. Screwing anyone in a minivan forty minutes after meeting in a bar is not love, it’s just skankiness. I was pissed, partly because my ex was being played so badly, and everyone knew it, it appeared, except her. When I tracked this hooligan down, it turned out he had a wife and kids back in Hawaii (and the band’s singer was married with kids as well) where he was stationed as a Marine. Oh, but it gets better: a Thai bar-girl, a nicety for prostitute, showed up on Okinawa a week or three after his affair with my ex was found out, claiming that her infant was his. He did not deny it to the Marine Corps or to my ex (who believed that he was just helping the prostitute out of the kindness of his heart), and actually declared the child his dependent. Karma is a bitch; while the USMC wouldn’t do much about his affair with my wife, there was no way to dodge a charge of adultery when there is ultimate physical proof: a baby. He was, at best, looking at forced separation from the service, and potentially even a Courts Martial. He certainly doesn’t deserve to be called “Marine.”
For a few months I made this untenable situation work. But not well. Initially I tried to repair and patch the marriage. I was entirely unhappy and rather depressed; I stopped eating, attempted run my anger away into miles of pavement, and generally ignored work and the more enjoyable aspects of life. I felt lost on the island that I considered a second home; my passion for the Okinawan culture and scuba diving that had so much subsumed my attentions of the past seemed to have been lost.
Because of my ex’s corrupt conduct, and as she was not only putting me in a difficult situation, but a whole slew of enlisted men in similar circumstance, I approached my Chain of Command asking that my dependents be returned early to the states. In conversation with my Chief of Staff at the time, I distinctly remember telling him, “Nothing good will come of this; this island is too small for both of us [my ex and I] to share….”
To make a very long story short, I ended up involved in an altercation with one of my ex’s lovers, a 21 or 22 year-old Army Specialist. He ended up at the ER, and I ended up being investigated by the Army’s version of NCIS. Believe me, it’s NOTHING like the TV show. It was a messy situation: a very junior army enlisted man committing adultery with an officer’s wife, culminating in a fish-fight with a Navy officer in the foreign and sensitive streets of Okinawa.
Interestingly and justifiably so, no charges were pressed and the Army issued an Order that this particular soldier stay away from my family (the Marines did the same with the “other” guy). I was given a “Non-Punitive Letter of Reprimand,” which was just fine with me. At least I won the fight…and would safely retire upon reaching twenty years of service. Oddly enough though, instead of my ex being kicked off the island, I was the one who was unjustly punished and sent home nine months early.
Leaving Okinawa was bittersweet. One of us – my ex or I – needed to go. But I was the one who had job as an Active Duty service member, but most importantly I didn’t cheat and ultimately cause this cascade of woe. It was clear that my ex and kids would be much better served back in the states in more familiar territory and with a much larger support network. And I would have financially fared much better as I ended up paying for her separate and sinister life since she remained largely unemployed on Okinawa. The military lawyers, however, thought differently, and so did my Commanding Officer.
In the end, my own personal saving grace materialized quite unexpectedly. When the Admiral I worked for, Admiral Victor G. Guillory, found out about my altercation, of course he wanted to see me ASAP. And of course I was scared to death to see the man under such embarrassing and regretful context. He and I had worked well and closely in the past months; in fact, I became his “briefing boy” for 7th Fleet since I could brief and stand my ground with senior officers. When I walked into his office, he unexpectedly greeted me with a warm handshake and a smile. I was shocked and taken aback.
“Elvis [my callsign during my time in the Navy], we – I owe you an apology,” he started the conversation. I was stunned into silence, expected rather to have my ass handed to me for such regretful behavior.
“I had no idea what was going on with you, and let me be clear: The Navy has failed you,” he continued. I had been trying for months to get help and placate the situation. First, through the command’s Senior Medical Officer since my ex shouldn’t have ever screened for living overseas with BPD, and then through official Legal channels to force my ex back home. My ex had her diagnosis changed to a condition that was approved for overseas, and the lawyers –being the spineless reptiles they are – ridiculously ruled that compelling my ex to leave would potentially violate her rights, a risk they were not willing to initiate. I then attempted to get help through the Chaplain, who did nothing but offer me counsel, and both first and finally through the Admiral’s Chief of Staff, who simply failed to raise any of these issues beyond his office. From what I understand, is was the COS who actually got his ass handed to him, the Admiral carefully explaining that he deserved to know of any serious issue affecting any of his officers.
The Admiral said he would genuinely miss me, but that Big Navy was adamant about getting me off the island due to the sensitive political situation that seems to be permanently present in Japan. I understood. While I wasn’t able at the time to voice my deep and sincere appreciation for the compassion and empathy that the Admiral showed, it has never left me and since has informed my own sense and style of leadership.
While my Okinawan paradise may have been lost, I slowly started to find myself again. Between my unexpectedly honorable treatment by the Admiral at my departure, and a truly gifted PhD psychologist (thanks Dr. Ing!) who opened my eyes and mind to a stark and unwanted reality, I was able to start climbing out of the abyss.
The mind can indeed and usually does create a prison stronger than any steel or concrete, and often fabricates a hell far worse than anything prescribed in scripture. Having pried my mind open to the light of a brighter future, I sadly said “sayonara” to Okinawa. However, it was with optimism for an unknown future, one that lay in the brilliant sunrise of a new day as I prepared to travel home back East.