When Command Master Chief Dale Fenske trod his last few steps in the uniform of the U.S. Navy, he knew for sure he wasn't going to walk them alone.
As a sailor piped the traditional farewell salute on a boatswain's whistle, Fenske stepped over to where his wife, Donna, was watching his retirement ceremony. He held out his arm for her to join him.
“We walked over to the aisle of honor, and we piped over the side together,” Donna Fenske said, tearing up again at the memory 19 years past. “To the military spouse it's those little feelings, that little bit of respect, that just made it all worthwhile.”
On Veterans Day, Americans wave flags and salute the graying men and women who have served in our nation's armed forces.
But many veterans will say that at least some of the honor and thanks should go to the woman or man who stood beside them — who nursed sick children, fixed cars, kept the household's books, celebrated holidays alone and worried endlessly while they were off putting country first.
“Donna's just as much a part of the Navy as I was,” Dale Fenske said. “She was left to deal with the family, and other families, on the base.”
That partnership is as strong as ever today. Both grew up in West Point, Neb., and the couple now live in Fremont. Dale is commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars District 7. And Donna is president of the Nebraska VFW Auxiliary.
The military has come a long way since the days when male service members were supposedly told, “If the military wanted you to have a wife, they would have issued you one.”
Over time, the Pentagon has created family support programs, improved child care and replaced many of the boxy World War II-vintage bungalows with modern housing. Wives who were once forbidden to work now receive preference for many on-base jobs.
Much of that progress has been nudged along by the National Military Family Association, a lobbying group. It was formed in 1969 to change a policy that cut off a veteran's pension when he died — sometimes leaving his widow without any means of support.
Kathleen Moakler, the group's government relations director, lived through a lot of the changes as an Army spouse from the early 1970s to the early 1990s.
“There are a lot more choices for military spouses than there were,” Moakler said.
The group has designated November as Military Family Month and promotes the Friday before Mother's Day as Military Spouse Day.
“The service members are the ones putting their lives on the line. We shouldn't diminish the honor we give them,” Moakler said. “But we should recognize the family is the underpinning.”
Some things, though, no government helpline or lobbying effort can change. The extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have subjected military families to repeated cycles of separation and loneliness that astound some wives from earlier generations.
Barbara Jones, 70, of Bellevue remembers fighting back the tears when her pilot husband, Pat, left for a single tour in Thailand during the Vietnam War.
“I tried not to cry. But I had to turn around and take a deep swallow,” she said. “But Pat didn't have to go back overseas or into harm's way, over and over again.”
For the families of air crews, the fear and danger wasn't confined to combat deployments. Mimi Dreiling, 66, of Papillion remembers well the knot in her stomach when her husband, Rene, flew F-4s, F-111s and B-52s during an Air Force career that stretched from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s.
“You never, ever felt good about them flying. You always exhaled when you heard the car drive into the garage,” said Dreiling, an Air Force medic before her marriage. “It was a constant thing in the back of every wife's mind.”
She remembers Rene came home one time with his flight suit smelling of smoke. She asked if he had been smoking cigarettes. No, he told her. The plane caught on fire.
“The happiest day in my life was when he said, 'I'm going to fly a desk now,' ” Mimi Dreiling said. “I was extremely proud of his service. But I was ready to move on.”
Giving birth while a husband is deployed or absent is virtually a rite of passage for military wives. Two of Donna Fenske's four daughters were born while Dale was away. Barb Jones still gets steamed nearly 50 years later that her husband — who was on alert at the airfield but not scheduled to fly — couldn't be with her when their child was born in 1964.
“I remember being very angry at the Air Force,” she said.
Frequent moves remain a part of military life. Some people get used to it, but for others it's a burden.
“For me it was an adventure,” Mimi Dreiling said. “I love to travel, I was kind of nomadic. But it was really hard on the kids.”
Barb Jones grew up in a military family and didn't mind changing bases every few years. But her husband turned down a promotion that would have meant relocating to Washington, D.C., so their son wouldn't have to move in the middle of high school. Pat retired here in Nebraska instead.
“My father called him and tried to get him to change his mind,” she said. “But he said his son wouldn't be this age more than once.”
Donna Fenske missed out on the frequent moves. The family lived for the last 18 years of Dale Fenske's career on Treasure Island, then a naval installation in San Francisco Bay.
“We saved (the Navy) a lot of money,” Dale Fenske jokes now. “Our family was there so long, she was referred to as the mayor of the base.”
When he would sail off on his frequent cruises, there were no phone calls, no e-mails, no Skype — just letters.
“You had to be strong. You had to continue. You had to be both mother and father,” Donna Fenske said. “I was the disciplinarian, the banker, the shopper. When something went wrong, I'd get it fixed.”
Her resourcefulness certainly was tested in 1989, when a major earthquake struck San Francisco. Dale was in the western Pacific aboard the USS Mount Hood, an ammunition ship.
The magnitude-6.9 quake rattled Treasure Island for 17 seconds, knocking out power for weeks.
The house didn't suffer much structural damage, but liquefaction — the shaking of sand and water into a slurry — left ankle-deep mud in their living room and dining room.
Donna and the children, like other families, lived in military tents for weeks as they cleaned up their homes and waited for the restoration of power. Students and nondeployed sailors helped with the cleanup.
“It was an experience and a half,” Donna said. “But it shows you the strength you've got when you survive and live through it.”
Five years later, Dale retired. They packed up, left San Francisco and bought a home in Fremont, near their families. It was culture shock to leave the cocoon of military life.
“Nobody could understand my walk of life — what I did, how I survived,” Donna said. “It was very tough breaking back into the civilian world.”
On Veterans Day today, someone might thank Dale Fenske for his service. He wouldn't mind if they thanked the woman standing beside him, too.