Sarah Smiley: What I’m feeling as my husband prepares to retire from the Navy

A year from now, my husband will retire from the Navy, so I have begun the emotional countdown of lasts: last deployment (thank you), last time I see him in uniform (tear) and so forth.

A year from now, my husband will retire from the Navy, so I have begun the emotional countdown of lasts: last deployment (thank you), last time I see him in uniform (tear) and so forth.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve waited for this moment forever. I was born during my Navy dad’s first deployment and married my husband promptly after saying I’d never marry anyone in the military. That was six weeks after I graduated from college. So I’ve been at this a long time.

Throughout the years, I have at times been angry. I irrationally thought things — such as Dustin being deployed when I had a newborn and lived 800 miles from our nearest relative — seemed unfair. Without a physical “Uncle Sam” to blame, however, I often directed my anger at Dustin’s bosses. Some of them deserved it; many of them did not.

Dustin’s response was always the same. “The military is a machine,” he’d say. “It’s an organization. It doesn’t have feelings. It’s not out to get you or to make our life miserable. But the people in the machine do have feelings and they should behave with compassion.”

But this answer often made me angry at Dustin, too. Couldn’t he see? Didn’t he realize how many military bosses had acted without compassion?

With nearly two decades of perspective now, I’m beginning to see what Dustin meant. More than that, though, I’m realizing how he lived it.

One of my favorite stories about Dustin happened during our first duty station. We were merely kids with a new baby of our own. Dustin’s boss at the time operated without much regard for families (think: planning a “guys’ night” after our guys had just returned home from deployment). I didn’t like him.

While Dustin was deployed, the boss emailed everyone an invitation to his wedding, which would take place soon after the homecoming. Dustin thought he was forwarding the invitation to me on email.

“Obviously we don’t want to go to this,” he wrote, “but I thought you’d want to see it anyway.”

The next day, Dustin flew off the carrier with his boss.

“I received the message you meant to send to your wife,” the boss said over the mic. “So we’ll mark you as a ‘no.’”

My next favorite story happened a few years later. Dustin was less green, but still very much the quintessential human in the machine. We were living in Florida and hosted a yearly Cinco de Mayo party featuring a mariachi band that was straight from Guadalajara and led by a man named Jesus. That’s he-soos in Spanish.

Lately we hadn’t been able to get in touch with Jesus and suspected he was deported. Once we found him again, Dustin sent the following group email to the people in his command, many of whom anxiously awaited our party every year.

“After months of believing that Jesus had left the country, a late-night sighting in the produce section of Walmart assures us he is alive and well and will come again to the party next month.”

The only person not anxiously awaiting the party was Dustin’s new boss, who had never attended our party and had not met Jesus. He promptly called Dustin into his office to discuss why Dustin thought a mass email sent from a .mil account was the appropriate place to pontificate about the state of religion in America.

More recently, once Dustin was the boss, and keeping with his idea that people in the machine should show compassion, he decided to send a personal letter to all the spouses in his command on Military Spouse Appreciation Day to thank them for their service. Each was sealed in an official Department of the Navy envelope. Unfortunately, however, unbeknownst to Dustin, they did not have the correct stamps.

The post office delivered the letters anyway with “postage due” marked on them. And the spouses paid, presumably because they were alarmed by the arrival of this official envelope addressed to them. Imagine their surprise when they opened the envelope and found a letter from the commander stating how much he appreciates their sacrifice.

In all honesty, the stamp debacle was not Dustin’s fault. But like a true boss who believes in leading with compassion, he took the (very awkward) fall. The next time the command hosted the families for an official meeting, Dustin announced he had a pocketful of quarters and was ready to pay back all the spouses who had paid postage on their letters. He even called it his “Michael Scott moment.”

All along, bosses and sailors alike have loved my husband. He has been the bright, shining example of how people can neutralize the cold machine that is government. He has cared for his people like they were family.

But in just one year, he comes back to us — his actual family. And as my “Star Wars”-loving boys point out, we are glad that he has escaped while still being more man than machine.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She may be reached at