Portrait of a Navy Wife: Carol Cornett

Like an eagle caged I pine
On this dull, unchanging shore.
Oh, give me the flashing brine,
The spray and the tempest’s roar.

So read the centerfold, quoting Epes Sargent, of a pamphlet welcoming newly assigned crew members to the guided missile frigate USS Stephen W. Groves. It’s a rhyme dear to a sailor’s heart, and perhaps somewhere hidden in the verse is the silhouette of a loved one who’s made a farewell on that “dull, unchanging shore.” Someone for whom long waits are a fact of life.

And so it was for Carol Cornett – except for the part about the “dull, unchanging shore.” As the wife of former navy Commander Billy Cornett, II, who served as captain of the Groves, she spent much of her married life saying farewells to her husband. The goodbyes didn’t get any easier with time, since Commander Cornett was not usually out to sea just for a breezy couple of weeks at a time. It was more like six months, sometimes in a world hotspot that didn’t offer a nearby phone (there were no computers, no Internet, and no cell phones in those days). But for Carol, how one spent the wait was the key to coping with it, starting with an outlook that saw the landside world as anything but dull and unchanging.

For a half-year at a stretch, Carol became chief cook and bottle washer, chauffer, handyman, supervisor, decision maker, correspondent, and single parent – really, not unlike most of today’s working moms. But add that load to the 15 different house moves in 20 years, the need to settle quickly and smoothly on short notice into new neighborhoods and new schools, and the necessary absence of dad during crucial times, and you could have a life with serious complications.

A life with some “hard moments,” Carol said quietly one day, recalling that her husband had already shipped out to Vietnam and could not be reached when she got the news of her first pregnancy, his absence from high school graduations, and the countless missed birthdays. In the explanations to the kids, there could never be anything more complicated or dramatic that the fact that dad was just out doing his job.

There was neither a Pollyana-glad-girl nor a yeah-it’s-pretty-tough from this lady with the soft trace of Texas in her voice. She was proud of her husband, of the U.S. Navy, of being part of American military life. And talking with her, you saw and heard a woman of enormous energy and vitality who thought that focusing on other people, perfecting the art of listening, working at a satisfying job (she was a freelance interior decorator), and being a mom to two daughters were the ways to cope with the long goodbyes. Even when pressed to talk about what it really felt like to be a one-parent family for half the year, and a two-parent family for the other half, she preferred instead to talk about the importance of the telephone.

It became clear – though she only circled without touching down on the topic – that it was the commander’s wife herself who often provided an emotional home port for many of the ship’s wives, especially those younger and newer to the navy, whose husbands sailed out with the Stephen W. Groves. Nobody assigned her to this job, but like the best of back-fence neighbors, she was frequently the compassionate voice at the other end of the line… (excerpt from Portrait of a Navy Wife: Carol Cornett, April 1988)