By Betty Vanderwielen
Pathfinder 

Klassens struggled to juggle family and military life

Veterans Spotlight

 

January 9, 2020

Photos provided

Edward and Heidi Klassen, both fresh out of Navy boot camp. Edward in 1988, Heidi in 1993.

SWAN VALLEY – Edward and Heidi Klassen met and began a relationship aboard the USS John Stennis. Both ended up serving 20 years in the U.S. Navy and ultimately getting married. But maintaining a relationship while both partners were in the service was not easy. It was even more complicated with children involved.

Edward, who had three daughters from a first marriage and later one son and a daughter with Heidi said, "The hardest part about going on deployments is you have to find arrangements for your kids or family. And if you have visitation – that all gets put on hold. And the people back home, they don't understand. Your whole life gets put on hold so that you can go do your job. And then half the time you come back, you're kind of a different person."

According to Edward, he joined the Navy because he was struggling to make ends meet after he graduated from high school in 1987. He tried working in construction but in the recession of the 80s, construction jobs were sporadic. He joined the Navy in 1988.


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After boot camp, Edward was designated an aviation structural mechanic. That job involved inspecting and repairing various structures on airplanes. During the 20 years, he received other designations. Loadmaster involved loading whatever was needed for a deployment. During Desert Storm that meant he and five others manually loaded 500-pound bombs onto airplanes – four stations per airplane, four flights of 14 airplanes per day.

After additional schooling, Edward became a Transportation Specialist, which in his case meant handling and shipping hazardous material. He also received designations as an Environmental Specialist and an Environmental Safety Specialist.

Heidi enlisted in the Navy right out of high school. She said, "I wasn't ready to go to school [college] and I didn't want to live at home. So that's why I joined."

Heidi left boot camp as "undesignated" and was assigned a job as storekeeper and later as logistics specialist. Basically, that meant she worked in the supply department and ordered, stored, inventoried and issued whatever was needed. Logistic specialists also performed postal clerk duties. Later in her career, Heidi dealt with hazardous materials – ordering, issuing, shipping and disposing of them.

In 1998, when Edward and Heidi were both dealing with hazardous materials, they met aboard the USS John Stennis. One particular memory they shared was Heidi's first crossing of the equator, which was Edward's second crossing. Seamen who have not crossed the equator are called polliwogs and go through a day of mild harassment and humiliating activities to prove they can withstand the rigors of a sailor's life. The ceremony climaxes with a trial before King Neptune's Court in which the slimy polliwog becomes a trusty shellback [turtle]. Edward emphasized that the tradition is a way of integrating the ship's crew, a way of making young sailors feel they are a part of a group, a part of something bigger than themselves.


Both Edward and Heidi had deployments in the Middle East, though not at the same times or in the same places. Heidi deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Edward spent time in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Edward said, "We weren't out kicking doors in or anything like that. We were just doing our regular jobs [storekeeping and loading]."

Heidi said her scariest incident was during Operation Enduring Freedom in Kandahar. She said she came out from the bunker with the others after an "all clear" sounded. They mustered for the required role count. Heidi said, "[The enemy forces] sent a mortar over and it hit right across from where we were mustered. We all scattered back inside the bunkers!"

Edward, who participated in both Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, said, "At some point you just get used to it. You could always tell the new people because when something happened their eyes were like this big, while those who had been there a while just went on sleeping."


If juggling relationships and military life was the problem, paradoxically it was also the solution. Asked why they stayed for 20 years, Edward and Heidi's answers were similar.

Edward said he only planned to stay four years, but each time that he was ready to get out his dad would tell him there were no job prospects for him on the outside, he should stay in the military. It made sense to Edward. His daughters were growing up and he was providing financial stability for them, something he could not guarantee he would be able to do in civilian life.

Heidi by then had a daughter, Samantha, and later gave birth to son Ronald, fathered by Edward. Heidi said, "I was a single parent. I had to do something that I knew I could do to make sure they had a roof over their heads and to put food on the table."

After each birth, the Navy allowed six weeks of maternity leave. Then it was back to work. Whenever Heidi and Edward were both deployed, Heidi's sister took care of the kids. Though neither she nor Edward considered it an ideal situation, their choices were limited. Heidi's parents had helped raise Samantha for the first few years but they were no longer able to care for her plus an added child. Edward's parents were too old to help.

In the meantime, Heidi and Edward were trying to grow their own relationship. They had a house in Washington where occasionally the whole family would be together but often Edward would be deployed somewhere and just as he was returning, Heidi would get deployed somewhere else, or vice versa. At one point, Heidi was stationed in Washington while Samantha and Ronald were living with her sister in San Diego.

"That was really hard," Heidi said. "I transferred down to San Diego for shore duty, and that's when they sent me off to Afghanistan. Then I went back to sea for about a year before we got back together."

When Edward retired from the Navy in 2008, his daughters were already grown and establishing their independent lives. Edward went back to school and completed his undergraduate pre-law work. In 2010 he brought Ronald to live with him in California. Among other advantages, Edward was able to enroll his nine-year old son, who showed an aptitude for mathematics, into a more challenging school.

Heidi's sister, however, was unhappy with the arrangement and accused Edward of "stealing" Ronald. Heidi was on a ship in the middle of the ocean at the time and though she verified that Edward had legal rights to his son, for several years Heidi's sister would not talk to her.

When Heidi finished her deployment, she and daughter Samantha joined Ronald and Edward. They bought a house in San Diego and the family was finally together once again. The following year daughter Rabecca was born. Edward joked, "My retirement present was a baby girl."

In the meantime, Edward worked steadily toward a new career. He obtained a law degree through Concord Law School and opened his own tax office.

Heidi retired from the Navy in 2013. She, too, completed her education, graduating with a bachelor's degree in accounting in 2016 from National University.

The Klassens had purchased a vacation house in Condon, Mont., considering it a place for seclusion, enjoyment and hunting. When Edward retired from the tax business, it became their permanent home.

Heidi now works at Mission Mountains Mercantile, doing much the same things she did in the Navy, ordering, stocking and inventorying.

"I don't really have a title," Heidi said. "I can do every job in the store. Grace [co-owner of the store] calls me her 'right hand woman.'"

Looking back at the struggles their family had during the years in the military and where they are now, Edward summed up, "We're pretty lucky. We're in the middle of nowhere and Heidi works at a beautiful store. We have a beautiful home. Aside from Rabecca, the kids are all grown up and doing well. You can't ask for anything more than that."


Betty Vanderwielen, Pathfinder

Edward and Heidi Klassen are now full time residents in Condon.

 

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