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At home: When duty calls women

Increasingly, men are finding themselves in the role of the spouse left behind while their wives are sent away.

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2003

It was a classic American military sendoff.

James Goodwin said goodbye to his wife at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base. She cried. The children cried. And Goodwin, who did three tours of duty in Vietnam, struggled to keep a stoic expression on his face. He didn't want to break down in front of his family.

But then she left.

As Navy Petty Officer 2nd class Sabrina Goodwin flew off to the Middle East, James Goodwin became part of a growing military phenomenon: Men left behind while women go off to war.

"I was trying to hold it down a bit," said Goodwin, a retired bus driver who lives in St. Petersburg. But watching the Air Force plane carry his wife away on Jan. 21, he struggled to keep his emotions in check.

"The plane became smaller and smaller, and I couldn't see it any more," he said. "I passed a tear myself."

With a steadily increasing number of women serving in the military, more and more men are manning the home front.

For Goodwin, who is 63, it's a reversal he never imagined. He spent 16 years in the Navy and Navy reserves. During his Vietnam tours, he was the one on a distant shore, hoping each mail call would bring news from his wife and two children.

Now that he's the one left stateside, Goodwin, who is in a second marriage, masters a different set of duties. He rouses his 9-year-old son, Jay, out of bed and drives him to school. He plumbs the mysteries of math homework. He cooks dinner, relying heavily on cuisine that can be microwaved or fried.

"Most of the time it's frozen food alley," he quips.

Sometimes he goes to MacDill Air Force Base, but after so many years in the military himself, he can't get used to his identification badge. It classifies him as what he is: a military dependent.

"I feel strange being a dependent. I'm so used to being up front."

The face of the American military is slowly changing. A total of 14.9 percent of enlisted active duty military personnel are now women, up from 8.5 percent in 1980. The percentage of female officers has climbed at a similar rate.

About 6.9 percent of military spouses are men, according to the national Military Family Resource Center.

Military officials say they work hard to provide the same support services for military husbands as military wives, especially those who have been deployed for a possible war. But men don't always use them as readily.

Often, "the husbands won't have as many friends, their network of support will be narrower typically. They also will be more reluctant to ask for help," said Chaplain Maj. Chuck Cornelisse of MacDill. He said that makes it all the more important "that the unit of this active duty member is reaching out to that left-behind person."

Frank Suitor, director of the MacDill Family Resource Center, said two male military spouses have come into the center in Brandon in the past six months, but he knows more exist. He figures most are busy working during the center's daytime hours, and that they might be less likely to seek help anyway.

MacDill's family readiness staff briefs families of units about to be deployed, including Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers off the base. These workers let male spouses of deployed personnel know they, too, can receive free phone cards and step to the front of the grocery lines on base, just like the wives. They have access to counselors and family readiness staff as well. Off base, scattered churches have started support groups.

But some services still seem more aimed at the archetypal military wife. When military units are deployed, MacDill offers each spouse a free oil change and car safety inspection, reminiscent of the days when soldiers were always men and their wives didn't handle the car maintenance. On the Internet, sites such as abound, but information aimed at left-behind military husbands is harder to find.

Most soldiers are still men and most military spouses are still women, but two Air Force majors named Kyle and Jean show how the old patterns are changing.

Kyle is the executive officer to the commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill, and asked that his and his wife's last names not be used for security reasons. He spoke recently on base in an interview arranged by MacDill's public affairs staff.

Kyle and Jean, who are 34 and 33, met in the U.S. Air Force Academy. Both became pilots of KC-135 stratotankers, used to refuel other airplanes in flight. A two-pilot marriage required some savvy planning. They chose which aircraft they wanted to fly, and which base they wanted to go to initially, by calculating which options gave them the best chance of being assigned to the same base.

But you can't be a pilot without being deployed. Both were called to duty so much after the Sept. 11 attacks that their son, Matthew, then 3, stayed with grandparents in Texas while his parents flew. Matthew is back here now, but Kyle and Jean employ an au pair who provides child care in their home.

About three weeks ago, Jean was deployed to the Middle East, so Kyle is the only parent at home with Matthew, now 41/2. Kyle is comfortable cooking, which he does even when Jean is home, but less happy figuring out bills, which normally is her job.

He thrives on taking Matthew to the park, to Busch Gardens or to the fast-food hamburger place that Matthew calls "Old McDonald's."

He said he misses Jean now, and can tell he'll feel a deeper heartache soon.

But Kyle doesn't worry about a wife at war. Asked why not, he points right back at his training, and hers.

They're pilots, he explains. Military pilots don't get to be military pilots by dwelling on what might go wrong.

"If I were a spouse, it would freak me out," Kyle said. He is a spouse, of course, but also a fellow pilot who understands how his wife views her job and her duty.

"Because we're both type A, and pilots, neither one of us ever believes that we're going to die in an airplane."

If he worries, he worries about the time both of them are away from Matthew. Kyle gets onto base at 7 or earlier, and 12-hour workdays are not uncommon.

"Can I tutor every night, can I read every book? ... No, and that breaks my heart, and it does hers. But we are happy with our plan."

Jean's father, Hank, who is 56 and lives in Texas, flew B-52s in the Air Force. "At that time I don't think I ever thought about women flying in the cockpit, least of all did I ever think it would be my daughter."

But he said Jean wanted to go into the Air Force at a young age, and she was so capable that he always knew "that she would be a better pilot than I was."

He does admit to some worries.

"I think of her often. I'm concerned; being a female in a male-dominated business is scary for me. She feels that she can handle it. I'm sure that she can, but you worry about her being outside the country in an area where females are kept in a lesser status than the males."

Here in the Tampa Bay area, Matthew has been staying upbeat, Kyle said.

When Jean left, her son gave her a bit of advice that still has everybody chuckling. He said: "Mom, I want you to be careful and don't fall out of the airplane."

At another home in the Tampa Bay area, the Goodwin family is making adjustments and getting used to a mother's absence. James Goodwin, the retired bus driver in St. Petersburg, is washing dishes, washing clothes, paying bills on a computer he's not terribly familiar with and looking after son Jay, who is in fourth grade.

Daughter LaPatia Gibbs, who is 19 and attends St. Petersburg College, also is home. She said her mother's absence is especially difficult "because my mother is like my best friend. She is my best friend."

During breakfast one day recently, Sabrina Goodwin called, and Jay stopped eating cereal long enough to talk to her. "She said she's proud of me because I got good grades," he said afterward.

Sabrina Goodwin told a reporter that serving overseas "is a duty we have to perform, being in this type of job."

Nonetheless, she said, "it's hard ... to have family that I miss and love."

"I always was a churchgoing person," James Goodwin said. "But now, with all this going on, I've gotten close to the Bible," he said, pointing to a well-worn copy on the dining room table.

He's not the only one. One night he was surprised to see Jay reading the Bible at his desk before bed. "We have a pact," the boy explained. He and his mother each read the 91st Psalm every night, from nearly opposite points of the globe.

As Goodwin looks back at his wife's parting on Jan. 21, he says, "She was very professional and very brave. She was more brave than I was. She said, 'You guys keep your heads up and I'll be back,' " he said.

And, he added: "She took it like a woman."

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