CAPE MAY - "We're all in the same boat." That's how two Coast Guard spouses summed up how they, and others like them, juggle families, careers, household chores and anything else life throws at them while their spouse is performing duty at sea.
"I don't mean it as a pun," said Jennifer Shoemaker, whose husband, Joshua, has been in the Coast Guard for 14 of the 15 years they've been married. "There's a good community of support here. We all know what we're going through."
Shoemaker, and Ivy Berg, both of Cape May, recently spoke about life while their Coast Guard spouse is at sea protecting the country. Steven "Zachary," Berg's husband, also spoke about how he handles leaving his family when he ships out to sea for duty.
It Takes a Village
Berg, who grew up in rural Alabama where she knew everyone who lived on her street because they were family, has lived in three places during her seven years of marriage to her Coast Guard husband. She credits her neighbors, who she refers to as "family," with helping her manage with two young children when her husband is at sea.
They live in Coast Guard housing on base, which Berg described as "amazing. Everyone is so helpful." She's a mother to 3-year-old Cypress and 1-year-old Lydia.
"Sometimes the neighbors' kids will bring in my trash cans. Other times one of my neighbors will mow our grass when they know my husband isn't home. It's those little things that help so much, especially when you have little ones at home," Berg continued.
Neighborly acts also include babysitting for each other, Berg said, or the time a neighbor brought dinner when Berg was sick and her husband was at sea. "You are part of the military family," she noted, "and you help each other."
She recounted a time when her husband was away and her child was sick. A neighbor joined her while they waited in the hospital emergency room in the middle of the night.
"If I didn't invest in those friendships, I wouldn't have any friendships," she pointed out. "We're all in the same boat, which becomes a bond. It's hard to say goodbye. There was one friend who became like a sister to me, even though we only lived close by for a year. It's amazing sometimes how things can click."
When it's time to move, Berg said she relies on social media to help her find everything from pediatricians and doctors, to where to shop and get pedicures. While the transitory nature of military life can be a challenge, she said she invests in friendships as if they were planning to live in the location permanently.
"It does take a village," she said, referring to the help and support provided.
'Always on My Mind'
Her husband, Steven "Zachary" Berg, said he "trusts" his wife and knows she'll do the right things for their children, but admits his family is “always on my mind” when he is out working in law enforcement or on search and rescue missions.
"We keep in touch through email," he added, "and I know if something really goes wrong, the Red Cross will help."
Berg is a machinery technician and boarding officer, whose work schedule changes often to adapt to the mission. Sometimes he'll be out for a week, other times it may be longer for training activities. He can also be home working a regular daily shift, making it home for dinner.
He grew up with parents in the Coast Guard, so he's adapted to the military lifestyle.
"I know the hardest is yet to come," he said about his fatherly challenges, "as the girls get older. I also know military kids are a little different. My wife has friends she's known since third grade; I don't."
Two Events Stand Out
Two occasions, however, stand out in his mind as being particularly challenging. The first, he said, was Jan. 13, 2018, when a ballistic missile alert was issued via the Emergency Alert and Commercial Mobile Alert Systems over television, radio, and cellphones in Hawaii, where Berg, his wife, and 1-year-old daughter were stationed. His wife was seven months pregnant with their second child at the time.
"I was on a naval base in California at the time, in bed on a cutter, when my roommate came down telling us to call our wives because of what was happening," he recalled. "We were told it was not a drill; we knew the missile could reach us in 15-17 minutes. Here I was away from my family, saying goodbye."
"We had to go to a bomb shelter that turned out to be a bowling alley with windows," Ivy Berg added.
During that call, Berg lost his phone connection to his wife. He thought he had also lost his family.
Thirty-eight minutes after the initial notice, state officials blamed a miscommunication during a drill at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency for the first message.
"My wife, who was seven months pregnant, started having panic attacks," he added. "My command sent me home.
"When I joined the (Coast) Guard eight years ago, it was different," he said. "I didn't have two kids. I knew I would be taking my life into danger sometimes, but now I was in a reverse situation and my family was in danger."
The second most challenging incident Berg faced was during a search-and-rescue mission on a sinking vessel. While performing his job, he couldn't help but think of his family at home and the risks he was taking.
"The Coast Guard is pretty small, so you know everyone and everyone is very supportive knowing what you are going through," he said.
Military Life is 'the Norm'
For Shoemaker, military life is the "norm" as she grew up with a father who was a Navy pilot. He spends part of his summer helping his daughter juggle life with active 10- and 14-year-old boys and a career as a dental hygienist while her husband is doing his job as a machinery technician and law enforcement officer on a cutter.
"Summers are the hardest," she said. Her husband left on duty Aug. 14 and was expected to return Aug. 16 or 17.
"My dad is here helping out. I was the middle of three girls, and we all had our chores depending on our age," she recalled.
"We knew our mom was dealing with the stress when dad wasn't around and we had to help out. For me, this, military life, is normal. It is what it is," she added.
As a result of her upbringing, she places responsibility on her 14-year-old son for everyday chores such as getting snacks after school for him and his brother, making sure homework and chores get done, and that they are ready for their sports activities.
"If they forget something for practice, they have to tell the coach they forgot," she noted. "I think my son is more mature than others his age because we've set expectations and he has more responsibility."
Shoemaker and her family's adjustment to military life has changed over the years, she said, depending on the age of her children.
"It was hard in the beginning when my husband was gone, especially for a long period of time," she recalled. "We'd get into a routine, and then he would come home and want to step in and take over."
Because her sons are older, she thinks this last move was more difficult for her older son especially. "He's in middle school, it's a tough age," she noted. They keep their sons active in sports, hoping it will help them make friends easier.
"Our kids work us over like any other kids, seeing who will agree to what they want," she added. "We laugh about it now, but it was tough. My husband likes to coach the kids in sports, but it's hard without a reliable schedule, so now he's an assistant coach."
The Fifth State
The Shoemakers are in their fifth state since joining the Coast Guard, and she said every station was different. "The first one, I was all gung-ho, volunteering and helping every place I could," Shoemaker said
"As the kids got older, you are more distracted by their activities. Now it's the quality of friends that's really important, but I'm still willing to help," she added.
As a licensed professional, moving can impact the pocketbook because states have their own rules about certification and licensing. Shoemaker applauded the recent move to reimburse spouse's qualified relicensing costs after relocation as another step in reducing the financial burden on families transitioning to a new duty station.
"It's also tough to find that employer who is willing to accept you for who you are," Shoemaker said. "Their first question often is, 'how long do you expect to be here?'"
Shoemaker said Coast Guard Training Center Cape May does a "good job" sponsoring social events for families, something she makes use of often, especially when her husband is out at sea.
"This is our second time in base housing, so owning and renting in a community are different experiences as well," Shoemaker said. "It takes about six to 12 months before a place feels like home, but after three years, I get an itch that it's time to move.
"The community is very supportive," she pointed out. "We're all in the same boat."
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