The first time I walked into a Navy recruiting station eight years ago, I didn't know what to expect, but I had one huge detail looming over my head: the guardianship of my two children.
At the time, I was a single parent to two boys, ages 4 and 8.
I was straight up about my situation with them, and in return they gave me a pre-test for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam to see if I was even worth talking to — especially considering my situation would give them more paperwork than the typical future sailor, or DEPers, as those in the Delayed Entry Program were often called. I scored just high enough for them to continue talking to me, and they told me that I would have to score about 10 points higher to get a decent job in the Navy, pointing me to a study guide. They figured that if I weren't serious about actually taking the ASVAB, they wouldn't have to get into the complicated mess of child custody for single parents coming into the military.
But I was serious, and after a few months and a lot of study time, I was back and confident enough to take the real test. We made arrangements for me to go to Pittsburgh to take the ASVAB, and they told me that I would have to decide what I wanted to do with my children, and whether I should go active-duty Navy or reserve Navy, and that to go Active-Duty Navy I would have to sign over my parental rights long-term to my children.
They mentioned this because when a new sailor comes into the Navy, they have to pick orders at school, which are often based on class rankings. Typically, shore-duty billets, or assignments, aren't on this list; rather, it's filled with sea-duty billets. An active-duty sailor can expect to spend some time in their home port where they are stationed, but can also expect a lot of travel time.
I personally chose to go into the Navy Reserves. I didn't have a civilian job that I loved, but I knew I couldn't handle that initial long separation from my children and I knew that I had to protect that.
A Reservist parent goes to basic training, their A-school, and then checks in with the Reserve command of their choice. After that, most choose to go back home to be with their families. Reservists can expect to go to additional schools and even deploy, but they only drill once a month and can even go back to their pre-Navy job if they wish.
With the congressman in my district guiding me, I drew up papers that granted my parents guardianship of my children and a financial power of attorney for my uncle to help ensure my children were financially taken care of as well.
If I had signed physical custody over to my parents, I would have had to go through a judge and it would have been a more permanent decision, and I would likely have to go through a judge again to get back physical custody of my children. I had heard horror stories from other military members trying to regain physical custody of their children from their family members, so I chose guardianship instead. It was the most responsible way to outline care for my children while also protecting my rights as their mom.
Our guardianship papers detailed not only who would care for my children in my absence, but also specified that I would automatically regain custody of my children upon my return. I signed the papers with my parents the week that I left, and it was in that moment that I realized that it was real — I was really going to leave my babies and go be a part of something that was bigger than myself so that I could become a better person and mother.
I felt a call to duty, and I knew that I had to answer it. Despite having a college degree, there was nothing for me back home in terms of work, aside from jobs at gas stations or in bars, and I needed to find a way to have an advantage over others in the workforce so I could provide for my children. While I was away, my parents cared for the boys at their home and I did everything I could to talk to them. When we were issued our boots in basic training, our Recruit Division Commander told us that whoever had the shiniest boots would get a five-minute phone call. Of course, I rose to the challenge and beat out 80 people in my division by shining those boots for two hours so I could talk to my boys.
Once I got to A-school, I bought a cellphone for my parents so we could exchange photos more easily. They sent me drawings and school papers through the mail, and I kept everything in a red binder that I still have today. In turn, I sent them bi-weekly care packages in flat-rate boxes filled with trinkets, T-shirts, letters, photos and toys. My training lasted from April 2010 until November 2010, and during that time, I lived in the barracks.
While I was away, I missed all of our birthdays, but knew that I would likely be home the next year so I tried to keep my spirits high and make them as special as I could from afar. When I left training for home, I didn't tell my family that I was coming and surprised them out of the blue one morning, as one of my Navy buddies happened to be on leave, in the area, and willing to pick me up from the airport. Hearing my boys come running to the door yelling “Mom's home! Mom's home!” was the best feeling in the whole world.
Because I specified that I would regain guardianship upon my return, the moment I stepped onto my parent's property was the moment I regained custody. I am thankful that we had set it up that way because when I did come home, the details were already worked out and everyone was on the same page. I was able to step right back into my role as a mom, without the interference of the courts or additional paperwork.
I spent five years in the Reserves, and during that time, I was not able to deploy because I was unfortunately diagnosed with a severe health condition. Instead, I worked with the public affairs office doing photography work for my command, which is a skill I learned while in the Navy. If I had to do everything all over again, I absolutely would: Joining the Navy was honestly one of the best things I could do to quickly advance my life. I met amazing people, learned new skills and even showed my kids that no matter what, anything is possible.
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