Hoffman’s forward deployment in U.S. Navy teaches him plenty about life’s stresses

Landon Hoffman recently returned home to Huntington after serving in the United States Navy for six years, the last four coming in Southeast Asia aboard the USS John S. McCain.
Landon Hoffman recently returned home to Huntington after serving in the United States Navy for six years, the last four coming in Southeast Asia aboard the USS John S. McCain. Photo provided.

Originally published Oct. 16, 2014.

Landon Hoffman hopes he paid all of his bills in Japan.

Hoffman recently returned home to Huntington after serving in the United States Navy for six years. He spent the last four of those years in southeast Asia, where he had a house in the Japanese city of Yokosuka.

All the mail he received was in Japanese, which had the effect of making bills and junk mail almost indistinguishable.

"I think I paid everything," he says. "But I have no idea."

Ultimately, though, sifting through mail was a relatively minor challenge compared to some of the other things he dealt with during his Naval service.

A 2008 graduate of Huntington North High School, Hoffman joined the Navy for a variety of reasons. One was that he simply wanted to travel and had heard Naval service was a good way to see the world. Another reason pertained to fulfilling a sense of patriotism.

"And I didn't want to go to college yet," he admits. "Prolong that."

Hoffman didn't fully escape the classroom, though. His first two years in the Navy were spent in technical schools, learning about the equipment he'd be using once he was forward deployed.

"A lot of basic electronic theories and components," he says of what he learned. "That was six or eight months of just electrical theory and then after that it was the specific systems that I was working on.

"Mine were radars and some navigational equipment."

Hoffman trained in Great Lakes, IL, and Norfolk, VA, and his time training left him excited for forward deployment and exotic locales.

Or so he thought.
"I was initially," he says of being eager for forward deployment. "But I didn't realize the operational tempo of being forward deployed, what it was at the time. I thought it was going to be exciting to live in Japan for a little bit, but then once you get there, it never stops.

"There's always some new world event that the Navy has to focus on."

Hoffman served aboard the USS John S. McCain, which is part of the Navy's Seventh Fleet, a force headquartered at a base in Yokosuka. Aboard the McCain, Hoffman helped supervise the ship's navigational instruments, such as radar and GPS, as well as equipments that measured the impact waves had on the ship, which were used by weapons officers.

The ship was often stationed in the waters between Japan and North Korea, a part of Japan's first line of defense against the communist nation. Hoffman recalls those times being among the most taxing of his deployment.

"Sometimes it was more intense than others," he says. "I know 2012, December, I was coming home to get married and we were still underway. They ended up extending our underway and it cut my leave short because North Korea was threatening to shoot some missiles and do some launches and just about our whole fleet is lined up all along there, just making sure they're not actually going for Japan or something crazy like that.

"So, it gets really stressful. Because we'll just sit outside North Korea for weeks or months at a time, just in the middle of the ocean, not doing anything. So, it's stressful, I'd say, most of all."

Mother Nature also posed challenges. In March 2011, when a powerful earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami that caused thousands of deaths and widespread destruction in the country, Hoffman was aboard the McCain.

"The whole boat started shaking and we were like, ‘Did they slam on the brakes or something?,'" he describes. "And then when we get about 50 feet from throwing our ropes over (a pier), they get a call and the tugs just take us right back out. We didn't even connect to the pier because they were like, ‘We're getting back underway.'

"Then for the next month and a half we were out in northern Japan doing search-and-rescue operations..."

One of the biggest casualties of the tsunami was the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant in Okuma and Futaba, Japan, which experienced meltdowns in three of its six nuclear reactors. Fears about the resulting radiation complicated life on the McCain for Hoffman and his crewmates.

"It was kind of tense for a while because we had been out to sea for so long and then we had to carry around our biological suits all the time because everybody was scared of the radiation and everything," he says. "So, we had to carry our gas masks and our big bag of suits everywhere we went."

The aforementioned situations concerned Hoffman's family back home. Email was the primary form of communication between the two parties during his forward deployment, with the McCain's Facebook page also coming in handy.

"It was very stressful," says Scott Hoffman, Landon's father, of trying to keep in touch with his son. "I didn't realize what military families went through until he went away and it really opens up your eyes because we just watch Facebook - McCain's Facebook - to hopefully see a picture of Landon or know where he's at."

In four years, Hoffman only got to go home twice. Each trip lasted less than two weeks.

Given the lack of communication that occurred between Hoffman and his family while he was forward deployed, one of the bright spots was when his wife, Adrienne, came to live with him.

"She was there for the last year and a half with me," he says. "She ended up working on one of the bases. She taught English to Japanese kids. She loved that - they are so respectful and great students. They're really nice people."

Hoffman and wife lived in the Yokosuka house, which was a privilege that his rank and behavior had granted him, he says.

"You have to be a certain rank and not be in trouble at all and you could get a house or married, too," Hoffman notes.

Though serving about the McCain frequently took Hoffman away from the house for long stretches of time, he looks back on his time there fondly, having enjoyed the experience of being immersed in a different culture.

One of the highlights of that experience was also one of the most unexpected.

"I was just standing out on the stairs that go up to my house and (a group of people) were running by, carrying a big, giant shrine," he recalls. "I don't know if it was a Buddhist shrine or what, but then they ran up and pulled me, like grabbed my arm, and pulled me into it and (I) had to help these, like, 20 guys carry this shrine.

"And so then we walked around - they gave us dinner then, like a really traditional Japanese lunch - and then we carried it around for another hour and we'd stop every 20 yards and they'd have some neighbor (who) would set up a table with snacks and beers and everybody would run over there and spend a couple minutes, then go pick up the shrine and carry it around again. It was really cool... they were so happy and excited to see us out there and just, like, cheering us on the whole time. It was fun."

The end of Hoffman's tour involved training his replacements. He received the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal during this time, which honors outstanding achievement or meritorious service.

Seattle was Hoffman's first stop upon returning to the United States. He went through out-processing there, then returned home to Indiana, getting back on Sept. 26.

Arriving at the airport was a joyous experience.

"It was awesome," he says. "... My immediate family was right there outside the gate and so we all hugged and said ‘Hi' and then walked down and out through the security and then there was all my grandparents and my wife's parents, everybody, with a big sign.

"It was just," he pauses, searching for the right word, "It was overwhelming. It was awesome."

Hoffman plans to enjoy being home for a bit, but his intention after that is to use his G.I. bill to attend college.

While he may or may not have some overdue bills back in Japan, on the topic of money, Hoffman knows his experience in the Navy is something that's hard to put a price on.

"Well, I hope I'm more responsible," he says of the Navy's impact on him. "I've grown a lot, I guess I'd say. I'd say I feel like there's no job now that I could get that I would not be totally OK with."