For three years of my life, I was quarantined at sea. Once the hatch closed on our submarine, it would be another three months until I could see my family; until I would eat fresh food; until I could feel the sun. From 1985 until 1988, I served aboard a U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarine. Our “strategic deterrent” patrols lasted about 90 days during which time we isolated from the outside world.

While we always had plenty of toilet paper, fresh food ran out after two weeks, our showers were limited to two minutes, and our bunks were stacked one on top of another in a three-person, 45 square foot “Stateroom.”

When I look back now at what not only made that lifestyle possible, but prompted me to re-enlist after five years, I’m reminded of this:

• Recognition that we were all in this together. While we complained about our circumstances, grieved about who and what we missed and were saddened about how far away “normalcy” seemed to be, everyone found strength in knowing that we were literally and figuratively all in the same boat.

• Appreciating smaller things. When life got hard, finding gratitude was finding happiness. For example, we were allowed to receive a total of six, 40-word “family grams” from friends and family while we were out to sea. While we couldn’t communicate with them, they could tell us what was going on and how much we were missed – 40 words at a time, six times, over three months … and it meant everything. When Radio announced that Family Grams were received and you got one, you felt like you were the luckiest person alive.

• Scheduling “fun.” Every Friday night was movie night, when a reel-to-reel movie was set up in the dining area and popcorn was served. Dinner that night was either pizza or sliders (the crew’s favorites). In hindsight, the popcorn was average, the food just OK and the movies very old, but having some fun planned at the end of the week gave everyone something to look forward to at its start.

• Maintaining a routine. Our days were highly regimented in terms of our “watch” schedule, dining hours, planned drills/exercises, equipment maintenance, staff meetings, downtime and the like. That level of routine helped keep our minds focused and ensured work got done. It also greatly helped pass the time, reduce stress and give everyone a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.

• Creating space for yourself. When you’re confined to close quarters with the same people for long periods of time, you need your own personal form of “social distancing.” The only place we could go on the sub to be by ourselves was our bunk. The bunks all had curtains, and once drawn, it signaled for others to stay away. Creating personal space helped everyone create calm.

• Special treats: Submarines make their own fresh water needed primarily for the nuclear power plant system, food preparation and laundry. A normal shower consisted of turning cold water on to get wet, turning it off to soap up and then back on to rinse. Periodically, we would break the rules and take a “Hollywood,” allowing the water to actually get hot and run uninterrupted for five minutes. Treating yourself to a “Hollywood” once in a while could make you feel like a king.

• Exercise: Feeling stress and anxiety and experiencing pretty significant mood swings were all quite normal and I think quite natural under the circumstances. To help address that, we would walk or jog endlessly around the missile compartment, and lift weights and ride stationary bikes between the missile tubes. Letting off some steam in a physical and ongoing way helped ensure things didn’t blow up.

• Developing an “at least it’s not” attitude. No matter how bad things got, the most resilient people onboard maintained an “at least it’s not” attitude. Not the best example, but most of us hated the Navy’s canned beets and our captain loved them –and he chose the menu. So, no matter how bad the canned vegetable of the day was, we’d say “at least it’s not beets.” Things could always be worse.

• Knowing better days are ahead. Granted, we knew exactly when we would surface, return to port and see our families and friends again. And that is not true now. But, being able to see past the isolation or struggle of the day, and trusting there is a better tomorrow, is an empowering perspective to cultivate each day.

So, that’s my way of saying, among other things, to take care of yourself: Enjoy a Hollywood, pull your curtain back on your bunkie once in a while, trust that better days are coming, and for God’s sake, stay away from canned beets … especially if they were purchased at a surplus store and expired three years ago.


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