Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 14 years. She currently serves as an advisor for the Military Family Advisory Network.
Written by Shelley Kimball
Dual careers, kids in school, timing, stability — these are all reasons Coast Guard families have chosen to live apart during a tour. Becoming geographic bachelors, or geobaching, means a sacrifice of not only living a distance apart, but financing dual households and missing out on day-to-day family life.
Six Coast Guard spouses shared their stories of successful rounds of geobaching and their advice for anyone considering embarking on a similar path.
In the middle of a geobach tour
Cari Rogers and her husband, Chief Petty Officer Jeffrey Rogers, are currently in the thick of it – they are three years into a five-year stint apart. He is currently stationed on a cutter in Virginia while Cari and their three kids are living in Ohio. They chose to live apart so that their oldest son could finish high school in one place.
Originally, they thought it would be just one year, but after that first year, her husband got orders to a cutter with a heavy schedule.
“Due to the cutter’s arduous duty schedule, we made the decision to purchase our first home and continue ‘geoing’,” Cari said.
Their son graduated second in his class and is now in college, while their two other children continue to thrive in Ohio, Cari said.
“By making the decision to geo, we have given our children the ability to put down roots — something that is almost impossible as a military child,” she said.
With that comes sacrifice, Cari said. For the Rogers family, it is not having her husband present at the day-to-day events.
“While it is true to say they miss their dad immensely, and I know at times not having him at things like football games, cheer competitions and holidays is hard, our children have such a huge appreciation for him,” Cari said. “They can see that he is sacrificing having his family there with him, living onboard his cutter, sleeping in his rack, so that they can stay here, in what they call their hometown, and enjoy all the familiarity that comes along with that.”
When she originally considered geobaching, she said, she was met with a lot of negativity. She heard from spouses who said they would never do it, and encouraged her to avoid it at all costs.
“I found it to be pretty disheartening,” Cari said. “Some people, like myself, had a choice, others simply do not. I try to be positive about geoing.”
And that would be her advice to other Coastie spouses considering geobaching — keep a positive outlook.
“Your outlook from the beginning will dictate how the journey goes,” she said. “There will be days that you feel defeated, but as you face them, just keep reminding yourself that you can do this.”
When there is no other choice
Becca Dorval and her husband Lt. Cmdr. Jason Dorval didn’t have much a choice when it came to their decision to geobach. At the time they made the decision, both of them were active duty members of the Coast Guard.
Having just graduated from the Coast Guard Academy, both were stationed in Portsmouth, Virginia. But when her ship had a homeport change a year later, they were separated. Then her husband got orders to flight school. After all of that, they were unable to be co-located, and she ended up on a 110-foot cutter in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, and he got orders to Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
What they expected to be an 18-month separation stretched to three years. It was worth the sacrifice for their career advancement, she said. She was able to attend graduate school, which led to her dream job, and he completed flight school.
Eventually, though, the idea of living separately again was the impetus for Becca to leave the Coast Guard.
“We decided that the possibility of not being co-located yet again just wasn’t a situation that would be okay with us after having our daughter, so we decided that I would get out and we’d become a one-military member family,” she said.
The idea of doing it again in the course of her husband’s career would have to be extremely compelling, she said.
“Obviously, the Coast Guard telling us we had to do it was very compelling, but now that I’m out, there really aren’t many things that would push us in that direction,” she said. “I willingly gave up my opportunity to retire with a full pension with less than 9 years to go in order to avoid being forced into it again.”
If she were to offer advice to another family facing the same choice, she would recommend acknowledging what everyone will be giving up – being together for special events and milestones.
“Being geo is hard,” she said. “It’s really hard. So when people ask for advice or stories or input on the possibility of going down that road, I always ask if they think the reason is really important enough to separate their family for a few years, and to think about the big and small things you sacrifice by making that choice.”
Career advancement for both spouses
Colleen Nguyen is hoping her geobaching tenure is nearly complete. She and her husband Petty Officer 3rd Class Tyler Quesnel have been living apart for the past 2 ½ years. Nguyen wanted to get her master’s degree and advance her own career as a medical researcher. She attended graduate school in Boston while he was stationed in Portsmouth, Virginia. He is now in Southern Maine, while she remains in Boston working with a research group at Boston Children’s Hospital. Living outside the city would not be feasible, she said.
“Commuting into Boston every day, in addition to the long hours, intense pressure, and high stakes nature of my job and other projects, would be both foolish and ludicrous – it would inevitably lead to faster burn out,” Nguyen said.
She and her husband usually see each other twice a month for about 48 hours. They found that they felt pressured to make every moment count, and they would try to force as much as possible into their days. They came to realize that the quiet moments were the most memorable.
“It’s taking the time to reconnect over those small, but simple moments of everyday life – mainly because, we didn’t have a typical ‘everyday life’ together,” she said.
She said she would tell others considering the same lifestyle to decide if the loneliness and separation can be managed through communication and knowing that it has an expiration date.
“And I’ll be honest, life in geobach world gets lonely,” Nguyen said.
She said she relies on emails, texts, Skype and good, old-fashioned letters to help her get through until they are together. When she’s lonely, she occupies herself with work, dinner with friends, or vegging out in front of Netflix. It also helps to focus on planning the next visit, she said.
It hasn’t been easy, but it was the right decision, Nguyen said.
“The decision to geobach was very tough to make as we had barely been married for a year before we decided to move forward with it, but definitely worth it – it has set our family up for more opportunity on various levels, as well as taught us about the true essence of marriage – equal partnership and open communication,” she said.
A means to compromise
Anne Perkins and her husband, former Chief of Cutter Forces Brian Perkins, spent about eight years apart during his 30 years of service. The constant moving was wearing on Anne and their four children, so she and her husband bought a forever home in Maine, and a sailboat for Brian to sail from duty station to duty station.
The plan worked well when Brian was stationed in Boston – there was a place for the sailboat in Boston Harbor, and the trips back and forth to Maine were not too difficult.
It was less convenient when Brian was stationed in Washington, D.C. The demands on his time meant that he was less able to visit Maine, and Anne traveled to DC for two to three weeks at a time.
After several tours in which they geobached, and one tour together in California, Anne started an organic farm in Maine. Brian was back in D.C., so she again traveled to see him when she could.
Anne said they maintained a philosophy of “short-term pain for long-term gain.” The home and their life in Maine provided stability and an investment in their lives after the Coast Guard, and that was worth it.
The cons were mainly financial, she said, and she would advise anyone considering geo life to make sure it will be affordable.
“The big drawback was that it was extraordinarily expensive, even for an O-5/O-6 to maintain two houses, not to mention pay college and school tuitions at the same time,” she said. “Say goodbye to savings! Say goodbye to low credit card balances!”
The things that got them through? In Anne’s words, “Patience, love, understanding, partnership, recognition of shared pain, common goals,” as well as “lots of phone calls.”
For those reasons, her final words of advice would be, “Be faithful to each other, again, in every sense of the word and realize that both are making sacrifices.”
Geobaching more than once
Jennifer Passarelli and her husband, Capt. Jim Passarelli, have chosen to geobach twice so far: once because his tour would be quick, and the second time to provide stability to their kids. This may not be the only two times they make this choice, either, Jennifer said.
The first time, Jim was transferring from a position as an executive officer of a ship to graduate school. Because that was just for one year, the rest of his family stayed in Florida.
They are now halfway through their second geobach. He is in Washington, D.C., and the rest of his family is in Florida. They decided it would be best for the family for him to move to D.C. without them.
“We knew his job was going to be intense, long hours, commuting nightmare, and we wouldn’t see him as much as we should due to that,” Jennifer said. “The kids are older now, middle school and high school and more settled so we felt the family remaining in their ‘happy place’ would be best for all.”
The hardest part is feeling detached when they are apart, she said.
“I know he feels really disconnected from us and we feel the same, which is weird because he is a ship guy and has completed three ship tours since having a family,” she said. “But, when he was home, he was home in the same house with his family.”
They keep connected by talking every day, and Jim calls and texts the kids every day, Jennifer said. Because he misses the kids’ sports events, Jennifer texts and calls him to give him a play-by-play from the sidelines. They also try to plan vacations to give everyone concentrated quality time together.
Jim is up for transfer again next year, and Jennifer said they may have to consider another geobach tour, depending on his orders.
“I would do it again, but it’s been hard and we still have one more year to go,” she said. “Ask me again next year.”
If anyone were to ask her for advice about whether geobaching is right for their family, she would tell them it takes strength and commitment, but it can be done.
“The only advice I can give is, do what’s best for your family,” she said. “You have to be a strong person and have a strong marriage to get through it, and it doesn’t hurt to have really great kids, too.”
Looking toward the finish line
Zinnia Narvaez and her husband, Lt. Herbert Narvaez took the geobach plunge two years ago, and they are about halfway through the tour. She lives in Northern Virginia, and he is stationed in Yorktown, which is about 2 ½ hours away.
The decision to live apart was difficult. They had lived in Northern Virginia since 2007, and they owned their home. Their kids were both a year from finishing their elementary and middle schools.
“It all came down to one simple thing: timing,” she said.
So they found Herbert an apartment, and they see each other on the weekends.
“For our kids it has been worth it, which makes it worth it to us. For their sake we would do whatever it takes,” Zinnia said. “You see, my oldest has to have a special program while at school and consistency matters, so that helped us too with our decision. Would I do it again? Maybe, but right now I couldn’t tell you.”
Some of Zinnia’s tips for survival:
- Take time to research your options before you decide: “This is not for everyone,” she said. “What works for me, might not work for you, and that’s okay.”
- A relationship has to be strong before you set out on the geobach path: “Challenges will come up, and they need to be dealt with. If there’s no trust, a geo tour is not for you,” she said. “It will make your doubts grow and worry can overtake your daily life.”
- Make sure finances are stable: “Now you are paying for everything times two,” she said.
- Do not treat it as a deployment.
- Keep OPSEC rules.
- Protect your time when you are together: “Do not keep a honey-do list for when he’s home,” she said. “Rather do it, ask someone you know or hire someone. That way when he’s home you have more time to enjoy together.
- Family vacations are important: “Try to take a family vacation once a year away from it all,” she said. “That will be a time to reconnect and forget about daily life.
Zinnia said she and her husband communicate face-to-face as much as possible, using video conferencing like Skype, Facetime or Google hangouts. Now that they are past the midpoint, she has a handle on how to make it work, with her eye on the conclusion.
“These two years have been very challenging to me, but I have also found things I didn’t know I could do on my own,” she said. “My kids think I’m super woman, and my nonmilitary friends think I’m nuts. But in the end it is what works for our family, and very soon it will be over.”
Are you geobaching or have you done it in the past? What advice would you give others? Share your thoughts below in the comments section.
The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.