The Fighter, the Family, the Fleet – a Fragile “Ménage a Trois”

The below is an essay recently published in the Naval Special Warfare Magazine Ethos, available on-line.  They had asked me to write something about ‘The Family’ and this is what I came up with.   I heard Radm Dixon Smith, Commander Naval Region Southwest, use the “Fighter, Family, Fleet” alliteration in a speech, and he tells me it is being used in broader contexts in the Navy.   I had independantly come up with the “Warrior, Family, Navy,” but changed the title to fit what the Navy is already using – and yes, sailors are pretty good with ‘F’ words.  I stayed with “Warrior, Family, Navy” however, in most of the text.   Ménage a trois as a reference to a wine is somewhat tongue in cheek. 

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Call it what you will – a ménage a trois, a three legged stool, a harmonic trio, a powerful triumvirate.  The point of this essay is that success for the Fighter, the Family, and the Fleet/ Navy demands that they collaborate as a team, and each must make sacrifices to make the team work.  I have found it useful to think of this three-way relationship as a ‘ménage a trois.’   ‘Ménage’ is French for household and ‘trois’ is three – you may know ‘Ménage a Trois’ as the popular wine that is a wonderful blend of Cabernet, Merlot, and Shiraz.  For our purposes, the Fighter , the Family (particularly the spouse) and the Fleet (meaning the Navy) must work together for the benefit of each and the whole.  If they work at cross purposes or compete with each other, each for their own advantage at the expense of the others, everyone loses.

Increasing Naval Special Warfare (NSW) commitments around the world has increased the stress on our warriors and their families, resulting in less effective warriors, retention shortfalls, broken marriages, and children who have to endure not only having their warrior parent away, but also tension and stress in the family when the warrior is home.

In some ways, not only our enemies but also our families have become victims of our operational successes.

Managing that stress requires communication, teamwork, and collaboration.  We’ve all seen the ménage crack and break up –it is painful to watch.    But we also know colleagues who make it work.  They excel in the field or in the Team, while at home their families thrive. How do they do it? For this ménage a trois to work, each member has an important role to play – it is truly a three-way relationship.

The role of the ‘Fighter’ – the warrior.  I recall as a Commanding Officer calling an outstanding young SEAL into my office to talk about the 60-70 hours he was working every week, and the 75 days of leave he had on the books.  I tried to encourage him to back off a bit, and to take some leave with his family. He politely and professionally told me to mind my own business.   Not many years later, I was saddened but not surprised to learn that he was divorced and his kids were struggling and in trouble.  Our warriors get important psychic rewards from the respect of their peers, and they are driven by the desire to excel as special operators.  And yet, while holding on to that ideal, most choose to get married and have families. They aspire to be good husbands and fathers, but soon realize (or are reminded by their spouses) that this new role as husband and father has responsibilities that frequently require compromising some of their focus on their professional ideal.   The family man/warrior eventually has to turn down or postpone great professional opportunities, in order to put essential time and energy into their marriage, taking care of the kids or doing work around the house.    Every senior NSW leader I know has had to bite his tongue when accosted by an angry spouse for making her husband go on yet another exercise, training event, or deployment, when the leader knows that her husband literally begged to go on that trip.  The warrior is a player in this ménage – he is not merely a passive victim, responding to demands made by the other two players.

The role of the Family and spouse.  We have to assume that the spouse knew that she was marrying someone who either was, or aspired to be, a SEAL or SWCC warrior.  It is no secret that the Navy makes heavy demands on its sailors and their families, and spouses by and large are reconciled to that.  On the other hand, many of us have known spouses who have bitterly resented the Navy, and/or the Teams for the demands that they have made on their families, and (sometimes) for the seemingly adolescent, fun-with-the-boys behavior that ‘the brotherhood’ may bring out in their husbands.     When the spouse is not reconciled to the culture of the Navy or the Teams, it puts significant stress on the marriage, and on the life and professional work of the warrior.  For this ménage to work, the spouse must willingly accept and become friends with that other key player in the warrior’s life – the Navy and the Teams.  Though it may sometimes be difficult, the spouse must try to appreciate the positive sides of the Navy/Teams culture, and accept that there will be sacrifices, as well as rewards.  As one NSW spouse put it to me, “When the spouses feel embraced and respected by the community, they are more likely to make the necessary sacrifices with more pride, and LESS resentment.”

The role of the ‘Fleet’ – the Navy.   The Navy is the 900 pound gorilla in this ménage.  It has been struggling for decades to find the proper balance between using its authority to meet ‘the needs of the Navy,’ and letting some of its objectives slide to support the needs of the family.  Navy and NSW leaders know that they can only draw so much on the good will of the warrior and the family – until the good will and dedication ‘account’ gets dangerously low.    Warriors and their families see their Commanding Officer and Command Master Chief, and Platoon Commander and Platoon Chief, as Navy representatives, since it is they who communicate larger Navy and NSW leadership policy to warriors and families.   These leaders are also closest to the warrior-family connection in the ménage, and must communicate warrior and family concerns to the Navy and NSW leadership.   Navy/NSW leaders must pay attention to these concerns, while continuing to fight for the manning and resources to permit a sustainable optempo.

Obviously, it is important to have a loving, trusting, and compassionate relationship between the warrior and his spouse and family, but addressing that is beyond the scope of this essay.  However, the other key player in the ménage a trois, the Navy, clearly has a role to play in how well that warrior-family relationship functions and evolves.  When the team works well, and all three players are doing their part and collaborating toward the success of each and all, we have three strong players and a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

6 thoughts on “The Fighter, the Family, the Fleet – a Fragile “Ménage a Trois”

  1. Bob, excellent article! You write about the SW family, but it’s about all of us. Somehow through stress of seven deployments and all of the precursor detachments to Puerto Rico, Gitmo, Nellis, China Lake, San Clemente, Fallon, Honolulu, Yuma and many others…my marriage survived into what is now our fortieth year. It is precisely as you described. If we fail to sacrifice “big” career opportunities on occasion, we put our family support system at great risk. I am among those who chose to pass in the end, moving on to a different path-leaving the one I loved the most. But we realize as we age that family is the true “big” opportunity in life. That’s where our legacy lies. All the best to you my friend!

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    • Thanks Gerry – My friends in the private sector who have moved around a lot have even more challenges – the corporate world isn’t quite as involved in family issues as the military, and there isn’t quite the ready-made support network when one arrives at a new destination that those in the military have. Corporate America makes many similar demands on marriages and families; I’m not sure how well they do in their role in the menage, but I suspect it isn’t a strong point for most corporations. Congratulatoins on 40 – We’re 8 years behind you, but catching up! Bob

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  2. Hi Bob, I like your article, it does hit home. I also know that SPECOPS is at least looking into the problems, not so sure the Navy corporate has been able to tackle it. In fact I know they haven’t and probably never will, it is just too big.

    Here is a link to an excellent article I shared with another of my groups, the Anciens des Ecoles de Guerre et du Collège Interarmées de Défense or Former students/staff of the French War College/Joint Staff College that talks about SPECOPS family life.

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/story/2012-04-24/military-marriages-special-forces-war-strain/54513768/1

    It was well received, and my point to them (and perhaps you) is that this is not just an American military problem, it also involves other nations and other services.

    And like you, I had a successful career, and family and yes, there were huge stressors along the way. We (my wife and I) kept it a team effort and that helped. For us it worked but there is no one answer and while the balance might work for some it doesn’t work for all.

    I also am blessed with two wonderful kids, both of them very averse to joining the military. I finally got them to explain to me “why” – they really didn’t like the moving around so much.

    While my wife and I thought it was cool and fun and a great adventure and all that it turns out it wasn’t for them At least it helped shape them into the responsible adults they are now whether they liked it or not. And, like I bragged, they are great people!

    Warmest regards, Rich

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    • Rich – great response – the article you link to is impressive and makes mine seem rather trivial! You make great points about how context is so important – every marriage is different – every careerpath is different, and every assigment is different. It is an interesting drill to try to find some areas where they converge, and to find common values and principles that work across all those variables. I grew up in a Navy family, moving every 2 years and enjoyed the life-style. After spending their childhoods doing the same, two of my three kids want nothing to do with the military – the third is thriving in it. So it seems to depend on the kid – they are different too. As with my other Ethos essays, the challenge was to tackle a huge topic in a thousand or less words. My essay doesn’t begin to address the challenges that the usatoday article you link to addresses. Thanks -as always, thoughtful input from you. Bob

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  3. To me two of the most powerful words in the essay are Family and Team! I always told my husband that our Family was a Team and I was the Captain! Well, maybe I wasn’t the Captain but I do like to think I was maybe the Coach! As you know my Husband the Marine you will understand what I mean. He was definitely a Leader and a good Marine, one of whom we were all proud but to us he was a also a good Husband and Father who loved his Family! I also believed the Corps valued the Family and its part in the Master Plan! If not, why would General Krulak stop in Hawaii on his way to Vietnam to meet with the Marine wives? He certainly considered us a part of the Team! The General took seabags of letters, tapes, etc to our beloved men! As for the Children, none of the five would have traded their military dependent lives with their civilian counterparts. Two joined the Military but for only one tour (one the Marine Corps and one the Army — in time for Desert Storm). The one daughter loved the gypsy life and wrote a a very positive paper in College on Service Children. All appreciate the new friends made, the new places seen and the many experiences enjoyed and/or endured. Well, enough of this! Thank you for the opportunity to read your views on some very important topics! Again, Blessings upon you and yours!
    Margie Wright (aka Esther)

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    • Thanks Marge – my kids also really liked moving around – their favorite times were when we lived overseas. I think the military life can be great for families – given the strong support network, which is better now than every before – and the strong sense of community working to take care of each other in good times and bad. Very much appreciate hearing from you and I still have a picture of Top standing in the Korean War memorial from your visit to the USNA! Bob

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