By: Molly Blake
When I graduated from college, I planned on being the next Diane Sawyer. My hubris took me to a small television station down south where I was a general assignment reporter until one day when the military reporter, Mark Dent, up and quit. I volunteered to fill in. That was 1997, long before The Longest War began.
I chose my boxy cobalt blue Kasper suit and sped off to the base, checked in with the public affairs officer, and met Capt. Peter Blake.
He was wearing a dark green flight suit that looked suspiciously like a janitor’s uniform. We chatted about his role in a Discovery Channel Wings Program and the aircraft he flew. I bluffed my way through the interview – hoping he wouldn’t notice my naïveté about the military, the Marines and aviation in general. Afterward, we shook hands politely and I turned to walk down the squadron’s narrow hallway. “Would you like to go to dinner?” he asked.
In retrospect, if I had been able to peek into my camouflage future – an endless loop of deployments, homecomings, long goodbyes, sweet hellos, new schools, new neighbors and misadventures along the way – I wonder whether I would have accepted that dinner invitation. If I had known that it wouldn’t be just the two of us, but that the Marine Corps would play a paramount role in our life together.
My husband recently retired from the Marines. For him, the transition will be tangible. He’ll rid the garage of flight equipment, rarely used sleeping bags, uniforms and unopened Meals Ready to Eat. He’ll clear out the “green silky” shorts that turn even his sturdy legs into pasty Popsicle sticks. At his retirement ceremony, he received awards and a final salute. Afterward, of course, we slapped money on the bar.
For me, the transition from military spouse to civilian is less defined. I have no uniform to turn in and no dusty gear to purge from our cluttered closets. Yes, I served, but turning in my “milspouse” badge feels more like the end of a messy love affair, and not the storied Marine farewell.
“Are you having second thoughts about getting out?” he recently asked me. To which I answered, without much conviction, “No.” The truth is, retiring isn’t a reflection of what we didn’t like about life in the Corps, it’s more a matter of timing and opportunities.
Deciding to retire after 20 years was far from simple. On runs, at dinner, during car trips and over e-mail while he was deployed, we batted around the pros and cons. Staying in meant more moves and his name in the barrel for the dreaded individual augmentee billets (used to fill personnel shortages), but also a chance to lead marines and shape military policy. Getting out meant less job security but better educational prospects for our children. It was either pick the fill-in-the-blank life or stick with the military’s multiple-choice existence. We chose the former and are slowly coming to terms with the fact that the autonomy – the sovereignty – will unravel much of the only life we’ve known.
I will miss the spouses, the camaraderie and the sense of pride. Even though I tease him for wearing a “onesie” to work (aviators know of what I speak), I will miss seeing him in uniform. Oh, how incredibly sexy he looks in his blues. I will miss how, just after a deployment ends, pride neatly replaces the suffering as quickly as a Facebook status change. I now think the six, seven, eight months alone wasn’t so bad, the whole born-again virgin thing wasn’t so bad.
And I’ve learned a lot over the years. I’ve learned that when President Bush announced a troop plus up, and seconds later the phone rings, it’s not good news. I’ve learned what it takes to earn an Air Medal and how that tiny ribbon can so clearly reflect my greatest fear. I’ve learned that having my mom in the delivery room for my daughter’s birth – while my husband served in Iraq – brought us closer together. I’ve learned that my dad is great at driving cross-country (twice).
And I’ve learned that being a military spouse has made me a better person.
Ninety-nine percent of the population has a tenuous connection to the military at best. I’m more than happy to introduce folks to the milspouse brew: we like to think of ourselves as part Wonder Woman and part Katniss Everdeen, with a dash of Lisbeth Salander. After all, we’re the ones who, armed with the toilet plunger for the inevitable overflow on day three of a deployment, have held our families and homes together while our marines went off to war or the Pacific. Just one percent of the population serves in the military. And for many of those marines, soldiers and sailors there is also a family like mine who, for the past twelve years, has chronicled our lives by deployments and moves.
“I had my second child when he was on the USS Boxer in 2006.” “I bought the Yuma house when he was in OIF I.” “I saved all the wine corks from our fifth deployment.” We champion our young Marine families, support one another and embrace our role as COW. That’s Commanding Officer Wife and that really was my moniker for a spell.
As a writer, I’ve mined much of my experience as a military spouse – a process that was cathartic and scary, embarrassing and helpful. Peter patiently edited my stories because despite more than a decade of marriage to the corps, I still think TMO stands for the moving office and I almost always spell Liet … Luiten … Lieutenant Colonel incorrectly. Now that we are transitioning into civilian life, I will write about that, too. After all, I do have two precocious girls who have largely escaped the pen I wield upon family, work and the Corps, and I have Mark Dent to thank for that. His exit unlocked a door I may never have tried to open.
After our marriage ceremony, Peter and I walked under an arch of swords held by his fellow Marines, kissing sweetly as the sabers fell in front of us, one set after another. After the last set fell, our friend Jay Schnelle, call sign Satan, drew his pearl-handled sword back and swung like it was the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded.
Just as the shiny blade connected squarely with my rear end, Schnelle shouted to the delight of the crowd. “Welcome to the Marine Corps, Mrs. Blake!”
I know the details of our military life will fade like Fourth of July fireworks, but many memories will remain forever etched on my soul, and on my bum too.
Molly Blake is a freelance writer. Her husband, Lt. Col. Peter Blake, recently retired from the Marine Corps after 20 years of service.