The United States of America has a long and proud history of its citizens rising to the call of the country and serving in its armed forces. Today, there are approximately 1.3 million active duty service men and women with an additional 800,000 in the various reserves. The chance that a service member will find their partner for life among those ranks became a reality for two area Navy veterans, Jerry and Lisa Nowatzki.
By Melissa Anderson
Jerry, a native of the Langdon area, joined the Navy in November of 1987. The decision to join came after his apprenticeship as a lineman in Montana ended due to lay-offs. At the time, he played softball with a group of military recruiters which lead him to a new career choice.
“The Navy one told me I could be a lineman in the Navy with the Construction Battalion (CB’s). Once I had talked with the recruiter more, I decided to be a Communications Electrician on submarines; it paid more,” Jerry shared.
Over his career in the “world’s greatest nuclear Navy”, Jerry has served in submarines, with his first submarine operating out of Holy Loch, Scotland. After that, he served on submarines and shore duty tours in Charleston, S.C., Norfolk, Va. , Groton, CT and San Diego, Ca. He has been under and circled the polar ice caps more than once. Jerry also served on the last diesel electric submarine, the USS Dolphin. The vessel was unique and holds several diving records over its 38 year career, the longest in history for a US Navy submarine. The USS Dolphin was turned into a museum and ported in San Diego after its decommission in 2007. Jerry was instrumental in getting it operational after a catastrophic onboard fire back in 2002 and remained on the sub until its decommission.
“People often ask what it’s like being on a submarine for months at a time. I liken it to being in a trash dumpster with 10 people you don’t like. It’s very cramped; you’re always within an arm’s reach of someone else. My longest time under water was slightly over 100 days,” Jerry explained.
When Jerry was halfway through his career in the Navy, Lisa joined in January of 2000. She trained to be an Electronics Technician and went to work at a shore duty station in Virginia Beach, Va. From there she was assigned to a carrier, the USS Stennis, in San Diego, Ca.
“I joined because I loved the military lifestyle. I loved my time in the military. I learned how to make friends that became family. I learned about selflessness, devotion, and endurance. I learned how to deal with death and how to honor the fallen with life. No experience was wasted, and I am a better person because of my military service,” Lisa shared.
Lisa viewed being a woman in the military like every other profession: the job and life were what she chose to make of it. She didn’t feel she had things harder or easier because she was a woman. Lisa explained that she has always thought she could do anything if she decided she wanted to do it. Her time in the Navy was time well-spent. As a woman in the military, Lisa has only one recollection of a man, who was actually one of her supervisors, making a sexist remark to her.
“I was working on a piece of equipment when he came over to me, shook his head, and said, ‘Chicks with tools.’ I knew he meant that I was a woman in a man’s place, doing a man’s job. Yes, his comment and attitude made me angry, but it also made me more determined to prove him wrong, and I did,” Lisa said.
Jerry and Lisa first met when they were both on shore duty, meaning they were assigned to a Navy base rather than on the ship for Lisa and a submarine for Jerry. The two worked together for a little over a year before Jerry was promoted to Chief Petty Officer (E8). He transferred from the department they both worked at to attend Chief’s training. After that he was assigned to more training for a different job in a different state.
“We lost track of each other, just like everyone does in the military. One day, nearly a year later, we happened to talk to each other on the phone. Jerry had called my department to talk to a mutual friend who had not been selected for promotion to Chief Petty Officer during that year’s promotion cycle,” Lisa said.
The two friends exchanged emails during the phone call that would ultimately change their lives. They started a year-long, long distance relationship that saw the friendship grow into something more. While they were trying to figure out how to have a long-distance relationship, September 11, 2011, happened.
“We were both blessed to have jobs in the Navy that did not require either of us to be directly in danger. I thank God I never had to experience that part of military life,” Lisa shared.
Later on, they managed to get stationed in the same area when they both came up for orders and were married a year after that. One of the first things stressed to new military members was that the needs of the Navy and the military necessarily come before any personal relationship. For most military members, that was an easy thing to hear and an easy thing to forget. Lisa explained that six- and nine-month deployments were harsh reminders that servicepersons’ lives are not their own.
“I don’t think either of us thought about the extra stress and strain we would both go through because both of us were in the Navy. In the Navy, you hear a lot about divorces, extramarital affairs, and relationships that don’t work out for one reason or another, mostly because of time and distance,” Lisa explained. “ We both had friends and shipmates that got married and divorced. The odds of being in the military and staying married were not very high.”
Lisa did not re-enlist and was discharged from the Navy with the rank of Petty Officer 3rd Class in 2005. In the 22 years that he was in the Navy, Jerry served in both Gulf wars before retiring as a Senior Chief Petty Officer (E-8) on August 29, 2009. He continued to work with submarines, transferring over to the civilian sector to work for a company, Phoenix International, in San Diego. Their primary mission was to work with the Navy to do submarine rescue using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to locate and rescue the crew of downed submarines. Jerry was the Lead Electrician, working there for eight years. The companies called for them to be ready and deployed anywhere in 24 hours, with all their rescue gear.
“He worked there for eight years until we moved to Langdon in 2017,” Lisa said.
In one sense, Lisa thinks she was lucky to have military experience of her own as she got to see the relationship from both sides. She knew what the Navy and military life demanded of a service member. She also felt the frustration and loneliness of a spouse left behind.
“I used to think that both experiences would make it easier to cope, but I was wrong. It is never easy watching your spouse walk out the front door and not know when he will come back home,” Lisa said.
On an intellectual level, she understood that separation was a part of the military life, however, she was not prepared for the unintentional alienation that separation brings to a relationship. After each separation, Lisa and Jerry had to get to know each other again just like any other military couple. The challenge that this brought to the relationship of being married and in the military was one that Lisa explained took some time to learn how to deal with.
“We had to discover what we loved about each other again. Maybe that’s why Jerry and I beat the odds. We have been married for 16 years,” Lisa shared.
Lisa and Jerry are both grateful for all the military members that put their country above everything else each day. They are heroes and deserve more than our nation gives them, something Lisa and Jerry do not take lightly.
“We have an all-volunteer military that protects the United States and the world. I don’t think most people realize how unique and extraordinary our military members are,” they said.