Military Marriages Too often, marriage becomes a casualty of war. Through battle wounds and seperation, these four couples share how their marriages survived. BY JAMES PARK
Jennifer and Joe Washam on their wedding day
In August, 2003, Robert "B.J." Jackson was driving along a stretch of road in Baghdad when his vehicle struck a landmine. Seconds later, a rocket-propelled grenade hit his truck. B.J., a supply and small arms specialist, along with his fellow soldiers had driven right into an insurgent ambush. As his fellow soldiers fought off the attack, B.J., 25, was severely injured and trapped in the crippled vehicle. It would be hours before he would be pulled from the wreckage and extracted to safety.
Soon after, things were different for B.J. when he arrived home from Iraq. He lost the use of both legs below the knees and suffered from severe burns. Now back in Des Moines, Iowa, with his wife, Abby, 23, and their three young children, the family is learning to adapt to B.J.ís needs.
One of the many casualties of war is marriage. After the dust of the battlefield settles, a coupleís marriage is usually left wounded, irreparably changedómost of the time for the worse. Army figures say that since 2003, divorce for Army officers is up 78 percent, and for enlisted personnel divorce is up 28 percent. But for B.J., his terrible experience on that fateful day in Baghdad was a turning point in his marriage. His relationship with Abby, like those of many other military couples, not only survived, but also changed for the better. "When he came home, we had to draw strength from each other dealing with his injury and adapting to needing someone to help with everyday tasks," Abby says.
READY FOR DUTY
Jennifer Washam didnít have much time to prepare for her future as a military wife. In 2004, her boyfriend, Joseph, was injured in Iraq and was brought back to the Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. There, she hurriedly introduced herself to her future in-laws for the first time as they greeted her at the entrance to the hospital. To gain entrance to the intensive care unit, they asked her to pretend to be Josephís fiancťe. Jennifer was more than willing to play the part.
Jennifer learned that Joseph had been part of a team inspecting a suspected chemicals weapons site in Baghdad when the building exploded, blowing up four of their vehicles and killing several soldiers. Joseph suffered shrapnel wounds and burns covering 40 percent of his body.
During months of recovery, Jennifer stayed by his side and also went from being his girlfriend to his wife. "Iím extremely proud of all that Joe has done," Jennifer says. "His sacrifices have only made our marriage stronger through our experiences together."
WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR
Stories like those of the Jacksonís or the Washamís are usually not what come to mind when the general public thinks about war and marriage. All too common are the tales of divorce and painful reunions with spouses who come back with battlefield scars that canít be mended; tragic stories like the one of Blake Miller, also known as the "Marlboro Man". When a picture of his dirty, combat-weary face appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a cigarette tiredly hanging from his parted lips, Millerís image became a symbol of the raging conflict in Iraq. His fame led to the many contributions he and his wife received when they announced they were renewing their vows this past June. Sadly, dogged by the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, Miller and his wife divorced less than a month after the ceremony.
"Marriage is an unheralded victim of war," says Scott Lorenz, co-author of The Marriage Medics. "Especially when husbands and wives are still struggling to build a healthy relationship when the military partner is re-assigned." His book combines stories and advice from relationship experts, one of whom is a U.S. Navy chaplain who advises military personnel on marital issues. "A long distance relationship ensues, which is a delicate balance of two peopleís emotions, expectations and trust," says Lorenz.
"I donít want to give you the impression that life is rosy," says Erin Fisher, 36."Because the separations themselves are very difficult." Erin and her husband, Jon, 33, have been married for almost 12 years and Jon has been in the military for most of that time. He joined the Air Force in 1995, enlisting less than a year after their wedding. He was on active duty for four years and is currently an Air Reserve Technician at the Homestead Air Reserve Base in Homestead, Florida. He and Erin currently live in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Jon served in Iraq from August of 2005 to this past January, which left Erin home alone to deal with their 8-year-old son, Declan, and take care of their house. "Iím not good at asking others for help, and since I work full time, it was stressful when he was gone," she says. Declan had a hard time adjusting to Jonís absence. "We were apart for my birthday, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and his birthday. That was really hard on our son," she says. To make things worse, Hurricane Wilma hit while Jon was gone. "I really could have used his help at that point," she says as she recalls having to move furniture, put up hurricane shutters and clear out their garage in anticipation of the storm.
HOME SWEET HOME
But through all of this, Erin and Jonís marriage has stayed intact. A strong united front regarding their beliefs about the military and Jonís service has helped them stay together and in touch when it comes to their conflicts. "This common ideal helps us to deal with separations. Itís not like heís traveling on a sales call, heís traveling to support the nationís defense," she says.
"In the beginning of his service, it was really hard because I was very far from home and the e-mail access isnít what it is today," Erin says. "Now we e-mail every day, several times a day when he is away and weíre lucky that his job allows him to do this. Also, the separations allow us to miss each other, which makes the home coming that much sweeter."
For Brian Stevens, 38, thinking about home helps him during his time away. "Knowing that I have to spend significant time away from my family makes me truly appreciate when Iím able to be at home with my wife and sons," he says. Brian is a Major in the Texas Army National Guard and has actively served in the military for 18 years. He and his wife, Amy, 37, have two boys and live in Austin, Texas.
Amy looks at her time away from Brian as a way to keep the romantic fires well lit. "We donít get in a rut or get tired of each other," she says. "The frequent time apart actually helps keeps things interesting and romantic."
And although she says that sheís become incredibly independent and self-sufficient while Brian is gone, Amy also says that she relies on her support network of parents, in-laws and siblings for help when she needs it.
Back in Des Moines, Iowa, B.J., is now medically retired from the Army and works as a spokesman for a non-profit, non-partisan organization called Coalition to Salute Americaís Heroes, which provides assistance to wounded or disabled Iraq or Afghanistan veterans.
And in Arlington, Texas, Joseph and Jennifer Washam are getting ready to celebrate their second wedding anniversary this October. Theyíre both attending college and Joseph is now a retired Sergeant and a board member of the same non-profit organization as B.J.ís.
Like the other couples, the Washam's have learned great lessons about their marriage from being in the military. "Our marriage has been strengthened significantly due to Joe being in the military, but mostly because of the challenges weíve faced because of his injuries," Jennifer says. "Weíve learned that it truly is whatís on the inside that matters and to never take our time together for granted."
The Washam's have met and talked to other couples that are going through similar situations and say that it has helped them cope with their own experiences. "It was hard not knowing when the pain for these families was going to stop," Joseph says. "It has helped us understand that we are not the only ones dealing with the hardships of a loved oneís disabilities," Jennifer says.
B.J. says that he and Abby have come away from the war as a stronger couple, sharing the same views about the ongoing conflict. "Weíre proud of the service members and really donít care about the politics," he says. "It doesnít matter if you are for or against the war. Supporting our men and women fighting over there is whatís important."
Even as blood continues to run on the streets of Iraq, these couples have shown that there is hope yet for love and it's ability to survive the horrors of war.