Life After Iraq: Building a Sustainable Partnership

On more than one occasion I’ve heard, “Freedom has a taste the protected will never know.” At one time, I was the protected. The year before I served in Iraq, it did not register, even after I began to meet Marines and one Corpsman shortly before my own Iraq tour. I met people who had been shot and likely shot or killed insurgents. There are many stories I am sure they have to share that I never learned. I embraced them wholly like I would any other person I sought as a friend and companion. I smiled a great deal and appreciated the opportunity to meet these Iraq veterans before I deployed. I didn’t have an understanding of what they had been through, having not experienced it, but we went through life the way friends normally experience it. We’d hang out, maybe drink a little, and complain about barracks rules and so forth. I was a happy person, going out to the movies, dinner, and/or local areas of interest. Just soaking it in as I had any other experience growing up, just being in the moment.

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Being dorky while packing for Iraq (August 2004)

My husband never met this version of me. Some days, that’s the hardest thing for me. He gets a close glimpse of that me several days into a vacation or after a few glasses of wine. He might see it as we relax with fellow veterans at a formal gathering, and he’s definitely a step closer to seeing that me for some of the Marine Corps balls we’ve attended together. On a daily basis though, he gets the quieter me. Not necessarily quiet, but contemplative. I see life differently now.

I came home from Iraq in March 2005 and he joined my unit around May. My husband met me shortly after the high of returning home ended and I grew quite disenchanted with my life as a Marine. Seriously, it was the worst time anyone could have wanted to date me; I was having a terrible year and started to take it out on everyone around me. My life was in disrepair when we met. Like Taylor Swift’s lines from “Delicate” he entered my life when “My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me.” I felt like an outsider around my family, I had been talked down to and treated like a consolation prize by guys I tried to date after Iraq, and things at work weren’t going well. After Iraq, I spent a month on Recruiter’s Assistance in Rhode Island, a month (roughly) at Technical Escort school in Huntsville, Alabama, and a month at Corporal’s Course (spanning part of August and September) where I was jealous Marine Expeditionary Unit guys got to leave to assist in areas hit by Hurricane Katrina. I was burnt out on doing everything for everyone else and feeling invisible and not visible enough.

I wasn’t sure it was possible to have a successful relationship while serving because the situation for me was a bit like living in a fishbowl. A week before I went on my first date with my husband I thought about everything from the year and a half prior. While some guys I worked with were married or in a longterm relationship, I couldn’t seem to make anything stick. I most wanted a partnership to work out and I was in this season of waiting for someone to fight for me and see me the way I wanted to see him, as a longterm commitment; at twenty-one years old, it was a bit embarrassing I could serve in Iraq longer than the length of any relationship to date. With a sense that my career choice was incompatible with dating, I basically resigned myself to the notion I’d be single until my contract ended in 2007.

And then something funny happened. I went on a non-date that became our first date.

I was a woman who served in Iraq with a male partner who hadn’t. I had a feeling others would make the situation awkward, that others would emasculate him when nothing more than our timing of entering the Marine Corps changed who went to Iraq and he hadn’t. I knew well enough, too, being two years older that someone would have something to say about our age difference. No one seems to care when an older guy dates a younger woman but when the shoe is on the other foot, boy do people share their opinions. I also knew being one rank above him and working in the same unit, the situation was ripe for scrutiny.

For the first time, I was truly interested in keeping my relationship under wraps so we could figure out things for ourselves. I needed privacy to make the relationship successful and privacy, in case it wasn’t. While I cannot say we made all the right choices (and no one does), looking back, there are some important things I learned from the failed relationships that are probably more important after having served in Iraq. Our relationship didn’t stay under wraps too long as one of our peers informed our chain of command we were dating, but after a rough start, we made things work on our terms. In building a successful relationship after Iraq, here’s what’s been working for us:

Keeping conflicts offline. I don’t like being badmouthed in person, but being in the middle of a social media fight is worse. Instead of two or three friends, acquaintances, or strangers being privy to a disagreement, imagine having 100, 200, or 300. Everyone has an opinion, and they aren’t always helpful. I had a hard time in 2005 getting caught in “he said, she said” situations. I never had someone antagonize me online and for once, I fought back and said nasty things,too, because I was angry and disappointed. Those things should have been stated privately. An online fight hurts a relationship. It hurts rekindling a relationship. It degrades friendships. It does (or can do) damage to one’s professional reputation. As such, I try to be mindful of not airing our bad moments, unless I do so in jest.

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Find Your Strengths. I am the emotional one and he’s the practical one in this household. Neither of us will get 100% of what we want all the time, so it’s good to find a middle ground and that’s not always planned. For example, I was deployed to Iraq a second time during his first birthday with us as a married couple. I purchased a replica Scottish Claymore (a type of sword) online and had chosen a particular hilt. As it turned out, that option wasn’t available but I didn’t know it before I deployed and my husband was contacted just before his birthday so the company could find out which alternative option would work for the purchase. I was bummed my surprise was ruined, but he took it in stride and selected something he appreciated it.

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Communicate. Things were pretty easy when we were (and are) together in-person. We can talk, interpret each other’s body language, and work through disagreements and praise each other easily. Text messages and emails complicate things. I don’t always like talking about things after Iraq that bother me, so I am pretty guilty of sneaking those conversations into text messages. It might be a way to open up the conversation and the more confident I feel discussing something, the less I use indirect communication as a crutch.

The hardest thing about indirect communication is feeling like one is understood. I remember how awkward our emails were when my husband’s tour was extended and divorce packages came in left and right for his unit. We spent the first 16 months of our marriage apart and it takes a lot of digging down deep to not be upset over every missed phone call, short emails, or communication gaps when communications are shut off so families notifications can occur through formal channels. It’s hard to push through a brand new marriage worrying that it might fail before you ever really experience what it has to offer because you see others failing.

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Every Relationship Is Different. I was not the more socially outgoing person in past relationships. To this day, I am still surprised by how outgoing I come across when my husband and I go out because I used to be the quiet one watching all the activity and occasionally saying a few things. I’m an introverted person which has made discussing my post-Iraq challenges a slow process. Aside from a few close male Marine veterans and my husband, I don’t give most people a great view of the most difficult days after my first deployment. My husband supports me when I’m willing to share my thoughts outside our small shared circle of friends. He’s attended some public presentations with me–with our daughter in tow–and has never criticized how or when I choose to share this part of my life.

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One of the items he sent to me in the early part of my second tour in Iraq

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Support Takes Many Forms. Years ago, I don’t know how much I would have opened up about my particular role in Iraq. I did not realize how much it would impact my worldview or how much certain things would come back to me after I started working with veterans and lived somewhere with regular fireworks. In the early stages of our partnership, he made sure I had creature comforts to help me feel better during my second Iraq deployment. I had a care package of my favorite pillow, some tv show dvds, a beloved outfit, photos, a digital camera, and Sobe Adrenaline energy drinks. He built our first home with furniture from Walmart. He wrote to me about the first apartment he picked out for us, how it looked, and unpacking my belongings from the barracks to ready our first home. He picked up souvenirs during his deployment to show me I was missed and appreciated. I am not a materialistic person but it was beautiful to receive things that made him think of me from nations I’ve never visited.

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Camp Pendleton, CA circa 2008

We learned how to manage a household together. We learned how to parent together. We learned how to be students together. We learned how to talk politics and religion together. We learned good and bad financial moves together. We learned to move (on multiple occasions) together and to equally despise moving companies for the things they broke or ruined. We learned to laugh and debate together.

But the simple things matter most. We walk together, literally and figuratively.

We get out of the house, out of our bubble, and appreciate our surroundings and explore our opportunities.

I never imagined someone would want to walk through so much in life with me, and actually stay when he sees me on my worst days. He didn’t get the young woman who smiled all the time, the person who was protected from (some of) the ugliness of this world. Instead, he got the most resilient and tenacious version, he got the warfighter and the war veteran.

I got a new best friend October 14th, 2005 and with the new journey, a newfound freedom to become someone I didn’t realize I could be.

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