The luster of the wedding ring hasn’t faded, nor has dust settled on the faces in the photo album. But something has changed. The bathroom counter meant to accommodate his and her creams, lotions and after-shave has become all-female terrain. The master bedroom is now occupied by a friend.
Life hasn’t stopped for Anna Finel, 21, in the absence of her husband John Finel —currently stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, waiting to ship out on Feb. 15, the day after Valentine’s Day.
It hasn’t even paused. Strangely enough —some might even say miraculously — the talks over the phone and the frequent text messages sent sporadically throughout the day are enough to keep them going: her in college, him on the base. Thousands of miles apart.
Finel isn’t alone.
With over 145,000 U.S. troops deployed to Iraq, and 110 fatalities of Oregon soldiers, many families have a friend, brother or son who’s left behind a cold bed, vacant chair, and empty spaces on the bathroom counter. For some of these women, like Finel, it’s a husband.
Anna Finel knew what she was getting into when she married John, the high school sweetheart she met while working at the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tillamook, Ore.
For military wives, a husband who’s gone is “part of the package,” says Finel. “If someone wants to be married to someone in the Army, they should know what they’re getting into.”
In fact, she knew she was going to marry him before they started dating. What she didn’t know was how short their time would be. John Finel was known as something a troublemaker, a “good bad body,” says Finel with a smile. She was a local girl, smart, headed for college. Somehow, six months at KFC and the suicide of a coworker brought them together.
After graduation, he left for Bend, then Nevada, eventually enlisting in the Army. It was something he’d always wanted to do, says Finel. “He fits into the Army well.”
They got engaged the day before he left for boot camp, ironically speeded up by the need for more time. She told him, “You need to tell me now if we’re going to get married, because I need more than two months to plan a wedding.”
With thousands of miles in between, two busy schedules to work around, and the Army’s lack of communication, orchestrating the event was chaotic. Eventually, they found a day, Sept. 7, 2007, when she wouldn’t be in school.
The seventh rolled around and his AIT training hadn’t finished. “They told him he could get married the week before, or the week after…smack dab in the beginning of the school year,” Finel says ruefully.
Hurriedly, they postponed the wedding to Sept. 15. The change of date meant that Finel had to call all the guests. “That’s 300 phone calls,” she says. To this day, her wedding invitations still read Sept. 7.
After the wedding, they spent a brief honeymoon in Lincoln City — spanning the entirety of one night — only to return the next morning to pick up the tables and chairs they had borrowed from a school for the ceremony. That afternoon they stopped by her house to unwrap wedding gifts and “right after we opened the presents,” says Finel, John left for Nevada to commence his two-weeks of training.
The speed with which everything happened would set the tone for their first year as newlyweds. Once again, separation ensued.
Finel stayed in Oregon to continue her education, and John was reassigned to Fort Hood in central Texas. “It’s very hard being separated because of the school thing,” says Finel. From the day they were married, she says, they’ve lived together “as man and wife” for only four and a half months of the last two and a half years.
Currently, he waits to ship out on Feb. 15. Although he’ll be landing in Kuwait, Finel doesn’t know where her husband will end up. Despite the lack of information, her commitment to him and their marriage is one certainty she can trust. “You have to realize it’s not easy,” she says. “It’s going to be a lot of work. You can’t punk out.”
Angela Fowler, 21, another college student who married into the Army, knows a thing or two about changes in plans. Scheduled to walk down the aisle during the summer of 2008, her plans changed abruptly when her fiancé, Paul Fowler, a Black Hawk mechanic, came home in May from overseas deployment in Afghanistan for “Rest & Relaxation.”
After watching their tentative dates for their summer wedding fall through, both of them realized their options were fading. The day after John returned to the U.S. for his 18-day-long “R&R,” she told her mom they were getting married. Four days later, in a small affair consisting of family and pastor, Fowler was escorted down the aisle wearing a green dress to match her husband-to-be’s military uniform.
The next 14 days they spent together were bliss. And when it was time for Paul Fowler to be dropped off at the airport to catch his flight back to Afghanistan, it was Fowler, now in the role of wife, who waited on the sidelines for her husband to check through security.
Like Finel, Fowler was aware of the challenges facing her as a military wife. “I definitely knew what I was getting into,” she says in a gentle voice, her quiet gestures framing her words. Being the wife of a soldier is “the hardest job in the Army,” she says. “No matter how many goodbyes you go through, they never get better.”
Months before, while she completed a semester abroad program in Germany, the wife of a soldier living on base had warned her of the sacrifices to come. The woman, who she met while helping out with a church youth group located on the military base, told her that out of the ten years she’d been married, she and her husband had spent three years physically together.
Fowler listened, but made the plunge anyway. “Pretty much all of our relationship is long distance, but I know that I can communicate with him,” she says confidently. Ironically, Fowler can read his voice better than she can make sense of his facial expressions. “If I hear him talking, I can tell if he’s hiding something,” she says. That carefully attuned ear, that sixth sense some might call female intuition, keeps the worries at bay.
And it makes the moments she can actually reach out and touch her husband all the more special. “It makes you really enjoy the time you get together,” she says. “Every moment is precious. If you want to fight about something, you put it on the backburner for later, because all you have is this moment.”
While she patiently waits for his return, life has assumed a routine of sorts, in which her husband fades in and out of the background. Instead of making a home out of an apartment filled with hand-me-down furniture, Fowler lives with a teeming, screaming hall of girls on her campus. “I’m married, but I get to live with my girlfriends,” she says with a laugh.
And though she’d rather share a bed with Paul, who “hogs the pillow,” than with anyone else, she appreciates the effort her roommate makes to include her in a life without Paul. “She’s the best roommate I could have regarding the circumstances,” she says.
The loads of homework, late night movies, and shrieks echoing down the halls are never enough to mask the absence she feels, however. Like clockwork, every morning her husband calls her in her dorm room to wake her up. “Sometimes it gets lonely, because I don’t really have anyone to talk about the marriage thing, but I just keep going.”
Although Fowler initially didn’t want her husband to join the Army —a desire she calls “selfish” on her part—she’s not the first to put up a fight.
Melody Taylor, the mother of a 20-year-old son in the Navy who recently returned from Iraq, did all she could to persuade her son from enlisting. “We try to dissuade him from going into the military…We tried every angle we could.”
Her objections proved ineffective, however, in putting a stop to the child dreams of a 20-year-old who’d grown up strategizing over his own miniature soldiers.
“He wanted to do that,” says Taylor referring to her son’s passion for giving his life in service to his country. “He wanted to be where the action was…He wanted to make a difference…He wanted to be someone’s hero.”
Rachel Brown is a senior Communications major and news editor of her school newspaper, the Hilltop News at Corban College in Salem. When not fretting over her future, she enjoys swooning over the “Twilight” series, jogging, and the occasional dance party or two.