How to Support Your Spouse (And Yourself) Through a Department Head Tour

When your spouse is in the military, it is a unique experience that their job has such a substantial impact on your life. As military families, we understand this job is more than a paycheck. Whether we like it or not, the job dictates how we live our life. When we can see each other, where we live, get married, maintain our own careers, plan for children, everything.

But similar to civillian jobs, there are periods of a submarine career that are busier than others, more grueling or more relaxed. But in the four years I’ve been married to my husband, there was no starker contrast then the transition from Junior Officer to Department Head.

Following a blissful shore tour into six months of “SOAC” (Submarine Officer Advanced Course) training, the realities of the Department Head tour can be a rude awakening. With more responsibilities come longer work days, interuppted weekends, calls from the boat and increased stress.

So, what is a Department Head tour?

There are four department heads on a submarine: Engineer (ENG), Navigator (NAV), and Weapons Officer (WEPS), as well as a Supply Officer (CHOP). As their names suggest, these officers lead their respective departments. Similiar to their Junior Officer tour, they stand in-port and at sea watches. The biggest difference between the tours is the amount of responsibility. They manage their respective departments and lead them through complex maintenance evolutions, qualifications, and certifications. All be told, they devote a substantial amount of time ensuring their departments, and the ship, is ready for sea. While at sea, the department heads lead their respective watch teams through all assigned duties.

Department head tours typically last up to 36 months. Per the location and type of boat, that tour may include shipyard time, sea trials, months of work-ups, maintenance periods, then the actual patrol (three months) or deployment (up to seven months).

Since not one experience is the same, we asked fellow spouses for their best advice:

  • Take it one day at a time, learn to accept the phone ringing, and no one department head is better than another. I’d always heard that JO tours will test you as an officer but DH tours will suck out your soul. I think it’s good to be there for them every day, let them vent, be a shoulder when needed, be patience when the phone has been ringing, and know this too shall pass.

  • Try not to have multiple babies during it. Connect with other DH spouses. Let your families know it’s gonna be a lot of work and not to expect your spouse to be around for a couple of years.

  • Make your plans but don’t expect them to be available. And then when they can attend with you, it is a happy surprise!

  • Involve yourself with the FRG and wardroom (as much as you can with the pandemic). It is ok to have your own hobbies, career, friends and live your life when your spouse is gone. Try to maintain a personal routine, not just when they’re gone but all the time.

  • My biggest thing was flexibility. Be flexible and strong and try not to get upset when plans get cancelled, unexpected weekend mornings when they get called in , etc. FRG was everything for me!

  • Echoing what’s already been said: Try to keep home relatively peaceful. Expect long hours and stress, and when they are home early, cherish it. Cheer. Them. On. When they’re home and they’re away, be their biggest fan.

  • Make your own plans, if your spouse can join you that’s great, but if not, then you’re not (as) disappointed.There were weeks where I may have spent an hour total with him.I also try to set very low expectations -one sit down meal a week, coffee together on weekends.

  • I think for me, the biggest way that I supported my husband was by being strong for myself. I basically did my own thing. I think it was a huge weight lifted off of him knowing he didn’t have to worry about me, that I didn’t resent him, and that I was basically taking care of everything at home. We usually share cooking, cleaning, etc, but I just did everything during that time. We didn’t have any kids at the time which made all of that a lot easier to do. I made plans with friends, planned trips with friends and family over deployment, didn’t wait for him to eat dinner, and didn’t sit at home waiting for him.

    But when he came home I’d heat him up leftovers and let him vent. I wanted to be his source of strength and calm. I basically told him that I understood that he he had to do what he had to do. Knowing it will pass helps a lot. If he was able to come to things, great. If not, I was okay with it. We lived in Hawaii during that time and whenever my husband had a free moment I wanted to go on a hike with him or go exploring. But a lot of the time he just wanted to relax so I kind of let him choose what we did. One day we sat on the couch all day watching Game of Thrones, it was what he needed.

  • Be intentionally kind at every hello and goodbye. Department Head tour is exhausting for both of you in way different ways. It’s important to figure out where you can ask for help from other people and find ways to have fun together. Those friendships have followed us as we moved for XO and CO tours.Department Head tour was a lot of Rock Band nights at our house, Mario Kart and funny tv shows. We had two daughters ages 14 months and 2.5ish when ENG tour started— hiring a babysitter to do bedtime once a week was my smartest move. Ps. 13 years later we are still in contact with her.

  • Get a therapist that you like and keep regular visits. I also had my husband attend a therapy session with me prior to deployment. Was helpful for both of us.

  • Assume they will be gone or at work for three years straight and be happy if you get some family time. Suggest (force?) them to eat at least one meal home a week as a family when the boat is in. Know that it does eventually come to an end.

  • I support my husband best when I am at my best. So for I have to remind myself, almost daily, that hard, pain, suffering and sacrifice aren’t competitions, there’s no need to keep score and there are no winners. He will never truly know my hard and I will never know his. My advice is to be intentional in acknowledging the work and sacrifice you make for each other and for your family. Also find levity where and whenever you can!

  • Try to judge when they need vent vs when they want input. You are usually the circle of trust, but they aren’t always looking for advice. I learned that the hard way because I am an advice giver like alllllllways…

  • I second the, ” make sure you take care of yourself.” I know that it was a huge relief to my husband to know that I had my support system outside of him. So find your people that are going to help you through, Navy and civilian. Hire the extra services you might not normally; lawn care, nanny, grocery delivery, etc. Remember it is a season that will pass…. Even if it’s a long season.

  • Honestly- know your strengths. Fill in the gaps with help. Don’t expect them (your spouse) to be available for ANYTHING. Then when they can’t be- you won’t be disappointed and when they can be- it’s a bonus! IF you gain strength from others- be involved. I LOVED working with the FRG, but that can sometimes bring unwanted drama- so if that’s not your thing- then don’t be. Be consistent with communication with them. Tell them you love them and make them feel needed when they’re around, but don’t make them feel guilty for not being around. Do what is best for you and your kids- keep your schedule. But don’t be afraid to cancel plans when your spouse gets a little free time to soak it in. Finding good friends (honestly my BEST were either other ENG or submarine spouses or civilians) who can help you, celebrate with you, cry with you, is essential. But definitely a good routine that keeps you busy is best. Let them blow off steam on their own too! They work SO hard and want to be 100 for the family, but can’t be if they’re not 100 themselves. So give them some time to do their thing too.
  • Don’t plan dinner around them, like, ever, but try to keep something hot or easily reheatable. And don’s plan huge vacations, but get used to the last minute “Hey, I’m free for the weekend” type vacations.

  • So many great things already said here. I would just reiterate that this tour will probably test you both, individually and as a couple. Therapy helps: having someone validate your feelings and reminding you it’s OKAY to be upset is therapeutic in itself.Find your people. They will be the ones you call in the middle of the night when you have to take a kid to the ER, or your dog is on it’s last days, etc. Some of my strongest friendships are ones made with people who were in the same boat as me (literally) during some pretty hard days-months-years. Travel! Make plans. Find things to look forward to that may not involve your spouse so you don’t have to worry about being disappointed if things change.
  • I know there is a lot here but I wanted to share the best advice anyone gave me… when things go wrong (they have to stay on the boat, get called in, dates change etc.) your spouse is just as upset about it as you are. This was when I flew out for a port call and he was spending 14 hours a day on the boat 🤦🏼‍♀️. Remember they want to be with you just as much as you want to be with them.

  • Share your needs. When my husband was a DH, e-mail was new. His emails were not what I needed. I made out some writing prompts for him like “the best thing that happened today was…”. Ironically the one he continued to do forever is “for lunch, we had…” DH tour is really about managing expectations. Yes, I know you are the engineer and need to shut down, but I’m going to be pierside so I’m going to need you to come up and kiss me and then I will come back for you later. No one reads minds and DHs have their brains going in many directions, so spelling out your needs helps.

  • Our DH tour was fine. He had his time at sea every 3 months for about 4 months at sea (we were on a 2 crew boat), but when he was home in off crew he’d be home for dinner and weekends (this was pre-corona, so who knows what life is like for DH tours now days). That being said, I’ll try to find some new things that weren’t said previously. Here’s some things we did to keep perspective and our spirits up:

    Focus on the positives, reframe the situation: We have seen other families whose kids get upset when their dad gets pulled away by the phone for his job. As a result, when my husband‘s current job interrupts our home life with phone calls, we remember that if he’s getting the phone call (that’s interrupting our family life)… that means he’s actually home spending time with us! The alternative is that he could be at work this whole time and never even be home doing stuff with us. That took guilt off his shoulders when he got called away for work and nobody grumbled about it or made work the “bad guy”-our sailor didn’t want to be called away either, but he knew he could do so without returning to scowls and frowns!

    We talked about sharing and taking turns with the kids: One thing that’s truly hard on the sailors is missing the milestones and the day to day activities at home. They don’t need that added pressure of inevitably missing out, and hearing kids ask why he has to go, etc. It would be hard to focus on a job if you keep worrying that your family is bemoaning/depressed that you aren’t home. I routinely explained that it’s a share and take turns idea with the other crew. I would take special moments that my kids got to experience with their dad during his off crew (vacations, seeing our kid in a play, a birthday celebration, etc) and point out that the kids on the other crew did not have that time with their sailor in the last few months. Those kids needed time with their parent so they could have someone be in the audience at their performance or in the stands at their sports game. When I could connect it to their level and use the concept of sharing and taking turns, our young kids were a lot better at saying good bye and there was no hard feelings daddy was leaving. We also pointed out that daddy had to leave so we could afford the nice house, their room full of toys, our vacations, and all their extra curricular activities, and also that daddy working for the Navy gave us lots of military discounts so we could afford multiple trips to Disney and such. DH comes with a nice paycheck, and we made sure our kids understood that life costs money… daddy went to work so we could afford our lifestyle.

    Planned vacations: we were lucky to be on a crew that took stand downs when they returned from sea, and they gave other stand downs during off crew. So we took advantage of that! We went to theme parks, beach resorts, lake cabins, water parks, day trips, etc! We always left for vacation within 1 or 2 days of them being home, because that way WE could all reconnect after 4 months apart. Department Head tour means bigger salary, more BAH, submarine bonus… use some of that money (and the military discounts and your MWR discounts) when they get stand down-for your sanity, your marriage, and the reconnecting of the family.

    Communicate: communication has been mentioned a lot, but I’ll put a twist on it. The sailor needs to communicate to you if given the choice will the job or family come first? You need straight up honesty on that, and you both need to be on the same page. Here’s what I mean, some sailors sit around talking for part of the day and waste time at work. They still need to get their work done though, so they stay late. In this situation, they chose work over home, because some sailors go to work and limit their chit chat so they can go home at a decent hour and be with family by dinner time. Another example, they are a great team player and stay at work to help any and all sailors, or sailors on the other crew. It’s not in their job (sometimes the other sailor will even turn around and NOT do the same for your sailor in their time of need, but your sailor keeps helping them anyway), they’re just being extra helpful. In this situation, the sailor chose work over home, because that wasn’t their job/assignment/problem. Team work is great… but to a point, since some people take advantage of their generosity. Sometimes a sailor also assumes working long hours, weekends, helping everyone else on the crew, listening to everyone’s problems and helping solve them, is the best way to advance in their career. It’s never been proven… but will the marriage and family make it if the sailor keeps putting family second every time there’s a choice? Obviously though, needs of the Navy and some parts of the job is non negotiable, and when that happens just try to be understanding. We all know that being understanding can be a hard thing when your birthday and anniversary are always missed due to deployments. Or when your kids special recognition is missed yet again due to long work hours. But if there’s a choice, make sure you both understand which choice the sailor is picking, so you can back them up when things get tough.

  • Our DH tour(s) were fine – besides missing each other and family time, it wasn’t terrible. (We basically did a tour and half+ on 2 different boats, do not recommend.) My neighbors were some of my best friends and would take over lawn care and invite us over almost weekly for supper/drinks and to hang out/vent. While I feel it’s important to tell them that they’re doing a good job and you’ll all get through this together, I expected my husband to show up when he could to everything that he could. Sometimes it didn’t work out and he couldn’t make it, so we improvised. But I expected him to help me with kiddos and housework if he was physically at the house. If that meant tucking them in and passing out at 8pm, so be it. We would take a week-long vacation for just the two of us once a year (during a stand down) to reset, rest, and rejuvenate our relationship until the next break. So far, XO tour has been way harder on us because we don’t have a peer group on the boat to hang out with, also Covid mandates have made it worse to meet up/hang out. Constant communication and checking in with each other all the time has been helpful for every tour.

  • We are in the midst of our department head tour now. I have a different perspective as my husband is a PCU Shipyard ENG (second for the boat). While he spent a lot more time at work and sea as a JO, it was much easier on him since there was a good separation of work and home life. There was a great support network among the spouses between the wardroom and FRG since the guys were gone so much that my husband did not worry as much about the family when he was away. Starting an ENG tour at the start of the pandemic played a big part in this but the support system you get with a sea going boat is just not the same when you are in the shipyard and family sees that he is home every night regardless of the late hour (since we live close and there wasn’t even a place for him to sleep at work even if he wanted to for a long time) so they are less inclined to help out and offer support. That is definitely an added stressor for my husband so doing everything I can to make sure he knows we are doing ok is key. Let him vent to you about work even if you are sick of hearing about the boat!

    Since there is no break from the phone ringing when he is home try not to make a big deal about it since that will probably stress him out more (or when the kids go ugg dad ENG phone is ringing lol). We are having another baby during this tour unexpectedly which is also not helping the stress level! Also keep your weekends as free as you can because at least my husband wants to just relax from the busyness of the week. On the positive side of being in the shipyard if you can live close it can allow for your spouse to potentially attend kid events, help in unexpected kid situations,when the 5 year old floods the bathroom, etc if there is not a major event happening on the boat at the moment which has helped us out a lot. You do get a decent amount of weekend time together depending on what is going on with the schedule which is less accurate than the magic 8 ball my husband keeps at his desk! The mental stress and responsibility is the worst part so just do the little things you can to be there for your spouse and be sure to check in on him daily and ask if there is anything you can do for him!

  • My husband is currently DH and I have to say after reading all these comments I am very grateful! We are on a two crew boat and have a great command so I feel that makes a difference. JO was much more difficult for us all than DH. We choose to live farther away because it gives him time to decompress and not bring the boat home. When he does get phone calls he makes sure it doesn’t interrupt our life or plans etc. Communication is critical and it needs to happen both ways. When I really need him for something I try to give enough notice so he can be there if possible. I think so much of this depends on the job. Having a good wardroom helps a lot too.After saying all of that don’t make him feel bad or guilty for not being home or missing important events. He would much rather be home or off work than be on the boat. When they have duty it sucks especially on the weekend but carry on with your life and plans.

3 thoughts on “How to Support Your Spouse (And Yourself) Through a Department Head Tour

  1. I love your blog. A lot of your followers are enlisted spouses. Our spouses’ career goals for department head positions are the COB or EDMC. The struggle to get there, the sacrifices once they do get there, and the toll it takes on the families would be something I know I would like to read. Maybe you’ve already done something like this. If so, I’d love to read it.

    1. We have this blog post in the works, stay tuned! We definitely want everyone to feel represented here. Thank you!

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