Melissa Wallace of Camp Pendleton, California is a tall, wispy woman, with a soft voice and gentle smile. The wife of 25-years to a Sgt. Maj. in the Marine Corps, Melissa and her husband John talk wistfully about the life that is soon to be behind them, as Sgt. Maj. Wallace prepares for retirement. Melissa and John were married in 1976. Several years later, following the birth of their first son, John enlisted in the Marine Corps in hopes of finding a better life for his young family. Together the Wallace’s have seen four states, two countries and added three more sons to their family. They have survived two overseas tours, one that was unaccompanied, and an average of three deployments a year for the last 20 years. They celebrated their silver anniversary this past fall. There is no doubt that Melissa and John have faced challenges that have crumbled lesser marriages. Yet, looking at them today, there is no doubt they are as much in love as the day they married.
Melissa reflects, “Throughout John’s service to the Corps, I’ve often been asked what it’s like to be married in the military. At first thought, I’d reply that marriage is marriage no matter the circumstances. But to say so would deny all the positive effects the military has had on our life together, and there have been many. Marriage in the military is tough. It is full of every challenge and adversity you could imagine. Yet, it’s those challenges that make us stronger and ultimately make our marriage better.”
Emily Travis can relate to challenges. A new bride of the military, Emily and her husband Todd are currently undergoing a six-month separation, just two months on the heels of their nuptials. Emily is 20-years old and away from home for the first time in her life while her husband, Naval Petty Officer Travis, is “on a big, gray boat, oceans away.”
“I miss him dearly,” muses Emily, “but I try not to dwell on that. I wouldn’t have chosen to have my husband away from me, but since he is, I’m taking this as an opportunity to show Todd the strength of my love for him. It takes real effort to nurture a relationship like ours, and I feel fortunate to have the chance to prove I’ll be here for him no matter what, regardless of how long I have to wait.”
The day-to-day details of marriage military style may vary, but the underlying theme is the same. Marriage requires commitment, understanding and patience, even under the best of circumstances. The demanding circumstances of military life lend even more importance to adhering to these values. Relationship expert Barbara DeAngelis, Ph.D., author of Real Moments, writes, “Marriage is not a noun, it’s a verb. It isn’t something you get, it’s something you do…marriage is not a wedding ring, or a piece of paper that proves you are husband and wife, or a party that says you’ve been married for twenty-five years. Marriage is a behavior—it is how you love and honor your partner every day…it is a choice you make, not just on your wedding day, but over and over again, and that choice is reflected in the way you treat your husband or wife.”
Melissa Wallace shares a tradition that she and her husband used during deployments and other separations to enrich their marriage. “We kept individual journals all the time. The journals were written for each other and were like one big, long letter of all our hopes and fears and feelings. Whenever John would go away, we’d exchange them. With these journals, it was almost like we were still together, because we’d share all the day-to-day things you miss out on when you’re apart. Not only that, but we always seemed to learn new, special things about one another we wouldn’t have known otherwise. We still cherish these books years later. It’s like a chronicle of how far we’ve come in our marriage.”
Staying close is important for all couples—even those separated only as far as the next room in the house. Military requirements are not necessarily easier simply because you share the same living space. Long hours and demanding occupational specialties coupled with family responsibilities, can leave even the closest couples with little time to connect. Having that connection however, is the glue that sticks families together through the trials of military life. Yet, surviving the trials is only the first step towards a successful military marriage. Couples must also learn to make something positive of the challenges and come to understand that each challenge is just another opportunity in disguise for growth, both as individuals and as a couple.
Emily Travis chose to go back to school in her husband’s absence—something she feels she would not have chosen to do otherwise. “Todd is having a multitude of new experiences and I know he’ll be different because of them when he comes home,” she relates. “That makes me want to have new experiences and better myself too. I think it’s important not to stagnate myself and stop growing, just because I’m waiting to be reunited with my husband.”
Deployments, separations, and even the most successful career in the military will eventually end, but marriage is meant to last a lifetime. It is a lesson the Wallace’s learned early. “Did we have problems? Absolutely. Were there times I wanted to say it’s the Marine Corps or me? Yes. And were there times we were so thick in the middle of our difficulties we couldn’t see a way out? Most definitely. But those were the times we dug in our heels and just held on. Everything changes. It was just a matter of holding on until better days came, and when they did, we were amazed at how much closer we were for having endured together, and how much our marriage had been strengthened by our faith to stay.”
A party was recently given in honor of John and Melissa by co-workers and friends from Camp Pendleton. John gave a speech about his time in the Corps and what it meant to have Melissa by his side the whole way. He spoke of his years of service, the happiness they had shared and the tears they had shed. He talked of the achievements and honors he had gained in the Corps. Yet, to sum up, he had only one thing to say. “I am the Marine,” relates John, “but Melissa gives me the heart.”