While the definition of “home” is subjective to the individual, it is universally understood as a place of stability. Regardless of age, moving one’s entire life to an unfamiliar place without a familiar face is never easy.
For Navy wife Karen Dwinells, moving is a way of life. Yet, even her world was turned on its head when her husband came home from work one day over a dozen years ago and announced they were moving to Japan for a year. “I was very mad,” sighs Mrs. Dwinells.
Her husband of 28 years, Lieutenant Commander Mark Dwinells, is the current instructor of Bethel High School’s Navy JROTC program. He has held this position since the program began in 2001, with the assistance of Master Sergeant Joe Meehan, a Marine Corps retiree.
Cadets often see Mrs. Dwinells on the computers in the classroom, seemingly Lieutenant Commander’s partner both in and out of the work place as she expertly completes the unit’s administrative work. To the couple, being a team is second nature; since the day they met while roller-skating at age 18 and 17, they’ve stuck together through countless obstacles.
Mrs. Dwinells knew from the start that Lieutenant Commander was considering the Navy as a career option. After going steady for a few months, he had to do his duty and leave for the service. Because the Navy would cause them to be apart more often than together, they decided to break it off. His leaving words were “Maybe I’ll see you in four years,” Mrs. Dwinells remembers.
However, fate worked its magic as they bumped into each other that December, while Lieutenant Commander would drive the ten hours to Connecticut, in order to see her.
They endured this for three years, along with one six-month deployment, until they got engaged; a few months later, their lives became a joint rollercoaster as Mr. and Mrs. Mark Dwinells. They stood strong through multiple six-month deployments, constant moving from Virginia, to Hawaii, to Maryland, to Japan, and two children. Mr. and Mrs. Dwinells always had each other to rely on as a rock-solid constant in their whirlwind of a life.
Eventually the Dwinells thought they “had found [their] home” in Maryland suburbia. It had been their home for four years – the longest they’ve stayed anywhere. The family enjoyed the luxury of long-term friends, a church to call their own, their ideal house and dream cars, and a marina twenty minutes away for their motorboat. However, this pleasant permanence was turned on its head when Lieutenant Commander came home one day and broke the news: they were moving to Japan for a year.
As if this wasn’t devastating enough, Lieutenant commander was only one year away from retirement.
Privately, Mrs. Dwinells seethed: “How could they send [him] to Japan now, when [he] retire[s] in one year and why do I want to go to Japan?” She adds, “We loved where we were…but we didn’t have a choice.”
Moving to Japan was a transition about as smooth as a pothole in the road. For the first few months, they rented a quaint Japanese home until a townhouse on base was available. However, the house was a mere 1,400 square feet in total. Every room seemed miniature – the refrigerator itself was so slight that Mrs. Dwinells had to do “almost daily shopping for food.” As they waited to move on-base, they took solace in the presence of their dog and cat, which they were able to bring overseas.
As they moved on-base, the list of pros and cons only grew. As a plus, the Dwinells enjoyed free central air and heat: “the only thing extra was the telephone and cable.” Conversely their bills, though minimal, were in Japanese, the fiscal amounts in yen. Mrs. Dwinells recalls wondering to herself, “What?! How much do I owe?” A third bill that had her emptying her wallet was for gas. Each morning she drove her son and daughter to school, since the bus took an hour to reach its destination; nevertheless, the battle against city traffic lasted one to three hours.
Although the move was difficult, the community on-base made the experience positive. Mr. and Mrs. Dwinells would often go out with other American families for an “adventure meal,” a phrase coined because “they were never sure if the food was going to be good or bad”. In addition to that social time, Mrs. Dwinells often went shopping in 200 yen, 300 yen, and china shops with the other wives while their husbands were at work.
Despite it being tough, Mrs. Dwinells states, “It was fun, in many ways, to see a culture that was so different.”
There is no denying that the Dwinells family, and in extension, Mr. and Mrs. Dwinells’ marriage faced its trials and tribulations. Any skeptic would wager that a family who endured as the Dwinells did would be bitter and unhappy. Yet, regarding their marriage, nothing has changed between Lieutenant Commander and Mrs. Dwinells since that fateful day in the roller-skating rink.
Twenty-eight years later, Lieutenant Commander crows to his students each year before the annual military ball that his wife is going to look even more beautiful than the year previous – “as if that were possible.”