Between the sea sickness and fear of discovery from Russian attack subs, life in the Navy during the Cold War could be difficult.
But for Mike Schwartzer, 65, the hardest part of his 20 years of service was being away from his wife and two children.
“My little baby daughter didn’t know who I was because I was gone for months. I missed her first steps; that’s kind of hard,” Schwartzer said. “But that’s what goes with a military career.”
With Veterans Day set for Sunday and being observed Monday, Schwartzer discussed his military service and recalled the sacrifices he and his family made during those years.
After graduating from Columbus High School, Schwartzer enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1970. He was then sent to a training station in Chicago. Taking after his two brothers, Jim Schwartzer and Frank Schwartzer, the three all served for a time on nuclear submarines.
“My Dad always told me that if I went in the Navy I’d have hot meals and a clean place to sleep,” Schwartzer said. "He also chose the Navy over the other military branches as he wanted to travel and said, 'I didn’t want to get shot at, to be honest.'"
Schwartzer was assigned to the USS Theodore Roosevelt from 1971-1974. His first job on the sub was missile technician. This required him to climb inside and inspect the 16 intercontinental ballistic missiles on board. He and the crew had to be ready to launch them within a 15-minute notice.
The average amount of time the submarine spent submerged was about 77 days. While submerged, there was no contact with the outside world. Schwartzer said living inside a metal tube hundreds of feet below the ocean can be quite the adjustment, but his fellow crew members helped him adjust to life under the sea.
“Mentally, you’re so busy and you’re so young, you don’t know any better,” he said. “The crewmen that you work with, they rub off on you. Their perspective and their mannerisms you absorb. They act like it’s no big deal. And in time you just accept it as part of the job.”
After four years of deployment, he returned to Columbus and went on to marry his now wife, Vicki Hollman, in 1976. About a year later, he re-enlisted and was back on active duty. For the next year, Schwartzer served aboard the USS Casimir Pulaski, based out of Scotland.
Although Vicki was used to having family away at sea -- such as her brother, Clayton, who was in the Navy for four years -- she said she was not happy about the predicament she faced.
“I came from a military family, and then I married one who wasn’t in, but then (he) decided to go back in. I wasn’t happy at all,” Vicki Schwartzer said.
Although it was tough, Vicki said she supported her husband's career. One summer while he was away, Vicki said the clothes dryer caught on fire, the air conditioning in both the house and car went out and there were three deaths in the family. In addition to raising two children at the time, Vicki’s mother was diagnosed with cancer.
But she said the worst part was having to go through it without her husband.
“It was devastating because I didn’t have him," she said.
Vicki said life as a military wife was not easy.
“I always said I put him first, the kids first, and my needs were always last,” Vicki said. “Being a military wife, I don't care what service, it’s hard on families.”
Schwartzer continued to serve in the Navy in various roles, such as an instructor at Guided Missile School in Virginia for five years and on the ship USS Emory S. Land for a time, until retiring from active duty in 1993.
Although the journey was a hard one, Schwartzer said he's proud of the man the Navy made him become and that he couldn't have done it without the support of Vicki.
“The Navy motivated me enough to do more than I ever thought I could," he said. "I am very much in debt for the Navy for that.”
Eric Schucht is a reporter for the Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.