By Jennifer Rea
“Babe, I’m thinking about applying to Officer Candidate School (OCS)…”
My heart sank in my chest and my head ran to every negative connotation of my husband being in the military AGAIN—deployments at least 7 months long, everything falling apart, my anxiety and fear of being alone at night and the painful move as I left my family and friends for the first time.
“Well, I don’t do life as just OK. I’m not the kind of person that does the 9 to 5 job and is happy with it… I need something more.”
To provide you with a little background… my husband (JR) and I met in 6th grade for the very first time when he moved from private school to public school. In 6th grade, JR and I dated for a week, but broke up because one of my close friends wanted to date him… strange how things work out! We actually reconnected, at a more mature level, in our 10th grade Algebra class.
It’s funny to me to look back on the first day of that Algebra class and remember that JR’s pick up line (via MSN Messenger) was “Hey, you looked beautiful today in math class! We should hang out sometime.” His courage and confidence anchored me in and I was hooked.
My high school sweetheart became my husband on June 16, 2012—after 5 years and 8 months of dating (finally!). At that time, my husband had already been in the Marine Corps for two years and was stationed in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Much of our relationship at the time was long distance with emails, snail mail, Skype, Facebook, and MSN Messenger to help us stay connected while 1,300 miles apart—I thank God for technology!
Two short days after we got married, JR and I spent our “honeymoon” packing up a U-Haul and my two-door Civic, driving cross country (from Minnesota to North Carolina) in separate vehicles…a perfect way to spend your honeymoon, right?
We were both very excited as we had never lived together before and were finally together in the same house let alone in the same community for the first time in two years! With the happiness, there also came struggles and challenges for both of us. Learning to live together was one thing, but having to adapt to the military lifestyle and culture was another.
I had never grown up with anyone that was close to me that was in the military besides my grandfathers, however they had been retired for several years so, I had never known what “military life” was like. I now believe that knowing what the military lifestyle can only be understood by the military family themselves. I say this not to offend anyone, but to point out that I personally have seen several differences between “military” and “civilian” life. The first, as a military family I conceptualize the absence of my husband being gone quite differently than I would have not being a military spouse. Although it is difficult when he is gone—I am very proud of my Marine for serving our country and having such dedication to his work.
A second piece is that the military is a “culture”—it has its own language, way to act, and attire. I recognized this difference when I went on the military base for the first time. It was obvious who was not a service member based on the haircut and the attire and I definitely felt as if I stood out like a sore thumb!
Another piece was trying to learn the language and all the acronyms! Many of the get-togethers we had at our house involved the gathering of service members that my husband worked with (his friends) and their spouses. When it was just me and the “guys” I had no idea what they were talking about and felt left out of the conversation several times due to their acronyms and work lingo—I was very thankful for the military spouses I had met, which brings me to my next item—a military family.
As I had previously mentioned, the military is a culture and part of this culture involves several military families—this is the piece I loved the most! While not all military spouses get along, there are many military spouses that I could confide in and know that they would have my back no matter what. The part where you’re able to connect with someone going through the same situation as you and being in the “military spouse club” are things I really valued and enjoyed.
I had never been that far away from my parents, my family and my friends so the whole transition was very difficult for me. I think JR struggled too, with looking for a way to help me, when really there wasn’t much he could do. I just needed to adjust so time and patience were key factors for me.
The biggest thing that helped me adapt in the transition was being open and willing to meet new people, which I know was difficult at the time, even for me, as a social butterfly. Secondly, I got a job and I kept busy. I was actually enrolled in North Carolina State at the time to receive my M.S. in Family Life and Youth Development. I ran across a really great job—so, all of these things really helped me adjust. I also tried to continue the hobbies that I was used to doing in Minnesota, such as running, going to the gym, workout classes and crafting. I really enjoyed exploring the town and the Carolinas—of course, I can’t forget about the beach.
So, fast-forward to the transition we are in now… honestly, I kind of saw it coming. JR had a really hard time “leaving the military” and transitioning to “civilian life”. The beginning of our drive home to Minnesota was very emotional for him—it was like he was leaving his family. I felt really bad for him and felt guilty that I “made” him decide to move back home. We struggled during this transition too, as change is hard for both of us. JR wasn’t happy with his civilian job and I honestly hate when he’s unhappy—I feel helpless.
Watching JR in the “civilian world” was challenging. He hasn’t had anyone to really connect with unless he called his other service member buddies on the phone and man, those phone calls made his day! Again, it was almost as if he lost his family. The military had been part of his life for 5 years and he was used to the strict schedule, a consistent and reliable career with benefits, and was challenged with every day routines. I believe that the most difficult piece for JR was looking for a job—sending out resumes and going to interviews—this is something JR hadn’t done in 5 years! The second was financial. I know there were many times we talked about how we were going to pay our bills, and wondered if his job would be able to support us. It was stressful, but we were both on the same page on budgeting and managing our finances, so I think that helped a lot! And then JR found a job that was more stable than working construction, which helped with the financial piece and the benefits. For more “excitement” and to challenge his skills, JR applied to college and this really seemed to bring up his spirits. Many times he would come home from school and tell me all about class; what they talked about, how it relates to being in the military, and everything he had been learning. It was exciting and encouraging to know that he was “satisfied” with at least one piece in his life.
So, the conversation came up several times, and I think we both really needed to soak it in. I was angry, sad and anxious at the thought of him being in the military again. I felt like it was his decision and he hadn’t even thought about “us”. Throughout the process, he kept saying “I’m sorry… I don’t want to do this to you again”. And I just thought, “well, don’t then”… I asked myself “can I do this again? What are the benefits and do they outweigh the downfalls?” I appreciated his sympathy and concern in the matter, but I struggled in understanding why he wanted to join again…
I ended up reassuring myself that this was inevitably JR’s decision, however he had made the decision for us—for our future and our future family. I didn’t realize this until actually two weeks before he left for OCS. We had just been driving home after getting ice cream as I was stressed with finals and thinking about JR leaving. We had just pulled into the garage and I had asked him, “So, really, why do you want to join OCS?” And he looked at me and replied “I want to do this for our family. I struggled growing up—not having the finances to be able to go to college, barely being able to pay the bills and all the other financial aspects— it really stresses me out and I don’t want that for our family. I want us to be able to travel, to take off and fly wherever we want, whenever we want. I also want our kids to be able to go to college and I want to financially support them. I love the thrill of being in the military, it’s fast pace and motivating, but also I enjoy the fact that it is simple for me—there are set hours, pay and benefits, but also opportunities for challenges and goals to achieve. I hate that I have to leave you again and miss you every time I’m gone—this is the worst part for me, and the reason why we got out in the first place. But the way I see it now, there are many more opportunities for us in the military then just saying here.” Amazed—is the word that I describe how I felt in this moment—JR always seems to amaze me and surprise me with what he believes, his opinions, and his drive—all the reasons why I wouldn’t want to be without him. So, we decided if he goes, I go.
No one really understands why individuals want to join the military or better yet why someone would want to “follow” and go with them! But from my experience, I recognized that the individuals that do are amazingly selfless and humble people who want to make a difference in not only their lives, but a majority of their focus is to make a significant impact in the lives of others. This in itself motivated and encouraged me to “allow” or accept JR’s desire to re-enlist and apply to Officer Candidates School. I was also reassured by God’s love and knowing that he has BIG plans for JR and I—much greater than we would’ve ever thought! Oddly enough, I feel so incredibly blessed and thank God every day for JR. He is the most intelligent, caring, loving, selfless, and supportive man I have ever met! Together, we make a great team and a military family.
Looking toward the future… I definitely see my future differently than I did when we had moved home to Minnesota last August. The biggest difference is knowing that I won’t be living in Minnesota for the rest of my life—this piece hurts, A LOT because it’s home—its where my family is, my friends, my memories, everything. The second item is my career. I am currently going to the University of Minnesota to receive my PhD in Family Social Science and I hope to teach in a university someday, however knowing that my husband is now becoming a Marine officer—it’s a slightly different story. For one, JR will be active duty again so, this means that there will be at least one year where we will have to manage long distance again, which sucks, but I want to finish my schooling here in Minnesota before moving from place-to-place. Secondly, there are not many universities near military bases, especially Marine Corps bases. So, currently, I’m envisioning that I will either teach at a community college, which could be fun or find a career working for the DoD or a military base – teaching, researching, or program design and evaluation. So, we’ll see! And the third is our future family. When we came home, I was thinking about having our first child when I was like 25, but now with my graduate program and JR going active duty again, we both have decided that children will have to wait a little bit longer—at least until JR gets somewhat permanently stationed and I finished my degree—sorry, Mom and Dad! So, the first major milestones, while we did purchase our first house in December, it looks like we’ll only be able to keep it for 3 years and then move to somewhere else, where I’m assuming we will probably have to rent/live on base. And then children probably a little later in life, around 27 years old—all of which can have its benefits and limitations.
So, today… I haven’t seen JR in a month, not the longest we’ve been apart, but the most time we haven’t been able to talk since his first boot camp. For the first 3 weeks of OCS training, the only communication that we had with each other was snail mail! It’s been difficult not being able to come home and eat dinner with JR, go on walks, enjoy the summer weather, or simply share how our days went. Fortunately, after the third week, JR was able to call me and we Skyped for a while too so, that was really nice. It is hard for me to see him and talk to him, and then he has to leave and our communication gets completely cut off for a week—major bummer! During this time however I’ve been working at school, doing research, and working on a paper that is due later on in my program. As I had mentioned earlier, it is easier for me to deal with the transition and time apart if I stay busy and continue to send my brain messages that “it will be okay. He will be home soon!” I also make lots of plans to hang out with people because sometimes I really don’t feel like doing anything and if I stay home, I just get more sad and lonely. So, forcing myself to go out and spend time with good family and friends has been really helpful for me to get through this summer being away from JR.