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An Army of Two

Everything was all arranged for my wedding to Stephen. My gown was ready, the club was booked and the honeymoon was paid for. Most of the details were in place. All that was left to do was to anticipate the big moment. Then the phone rang. It was the day before Thanksgiving 1993. Stephen was calling with good news and bad news. He just received word that he was going to be promoted to Captain, but his unit was also deploying to Haiti on a peacekeeping mission. Our wedding would have to be postponed. I was devastated.

Our invitations were due to go out the following Monday. I called all of our vendors. They were wonderful to me and never charged me a penny for their inconvenience. Then I called my family and friends. They were very supportive, although one of my brothers thought it was the appropriate time to suggest that this was Stephen’s clever way of backing out of the wedding. It was not his brightest moment and I told him so in very colorful language. Our wedding was on hold. I wasn’t even married yet, and I learned my first lesson about being an Army spouse-the Army waits for no one and nothing. Not even weddings.

His commander, a wonderful man, took his young aide aside and insisted Stephen bring me to Hawaii to get married before the deployment. That way, God forbid, if anything would happen to Stephen I would be taken care of. I was living in Florida at the time helping my Father take care of my terminally ill mother. My Daddy kissed the bride, gave us his blessing and said he’d be patient until he could give me away at the church. Stephen sent me a plane ticket for Christmas and the elopement was on.

A borrowed dress was my gown and my handsome soldier wore his class B uniform. My friend made me a bouquet and lent me her veil. We were married in a judge’s chambers . They had a celebration dinner for us, including a wedding cake. It was a wonderful day. Not the day we had planned but special in it’s own right.

Believe it or not this is a common occurrence among the rank and file. Our closest friends here in Heidelberg had two weddings due to Haiti as well. This common experience bonded Janet and I instantly. He returned with the 25th Infantry division on the 3rd of April. I will never forget the sight of him marching in to join the welcome home ceremony. After the fan fare died down and a little leave, we packed up to move to Virginia.

That was 11 years ago, and life since has been interesting to say the least. I now have the best husband and three amazing daughters. Along the way we have made many wonderful friends. Thanks to the Army, I have gotten to visit places that many only dream about. I have also lived in five states and now live in Germany, been both mom and dad, missed my sister’s funeral, spent anniversaries and holidays alone, and felt the heartbreak of separation with each deployment. And throughout the years, I’ve come to a conclusion: Although the soldier wears the uniform, it is the spouse that is the true strength behind this great nation’s military.

The soldier I married is another Xavier grad, now, Maj. Stephen Knotts, Class of 1990. He was an ROTC geek and a history major; I was a communications major. We both lived in Kuhlman Hall and had friends in common, but we never met. Amazing considering how small Xavier was then. I do have one memory of him; he was bounding out of the dorm and almost ran me over in his black satin ROTC jacket. During his senior year, one of our mutual friends kept trying to hook us up. I wasn’t interested. He had a girlfriend, and I was busy with school and focusing on my upcoming career in broadcasting. I spent the first Gulf War interning with WLWT-TV in Cincinnati.

Graduation arrived, and I started my new job in news. Stephen returned to Cincinnati over the summer and helped a couple of college friends move across town. They had a roommate-me. He was a great guy, but on his way to Hawaii to be a lieutenant in the Field Artillery. The morning he flew out he said, “I’ll write you.” I said, “Sure you will.” To Stephen that was a challenge.

We started out as friends with a continent and an ocean between us. Through hundreds of letters and who knows how many phone calls, we fell in love. It was all long distance. He came to visit me and flew me to Hawaii for vacation. Incredibly, by the time we were actually married three years later, we had only spent about six weeks together face-to-face. I just knew he was my soul mate and no matter what life or the Army could throw at us, we would make it through together. I never gave the reality of Army life a thought. The future was ahead of us and we would make the best of it. We have since lived in five states-Hawaii, Virginia, Texas Ohio for an ROTC teaching year at Ohio University, and Illinois. Now we are serving in Heidelberg, Germany. Heidelberg is the home of V Corps. It is a beautiful city on the Neckar River about 70 kilometers south of Frankfurt. The post or caserne where Stephen works housed a Nazi Panzer unit before the Americans took it over after WWII. You can just feel the history in the walls and see it on the cobblestone paved streets. We don’t live on post but are lucky enough to live in the small town of St. Ilgen. We have German and American neighbors.

We have assimilated well into our town. The community has been wonderful to us. My German has come a long way thanks to the patience and encouragement of our neighbors and the shopkeepers in our local stores. We have the commissary and the PX so American goods are readily available. Anything I can’t get there I can get on the German economy or our parents are happy to send us what ever we ask for. In fact, other than our families and friends there is little we miss about living in the states.

Our kids go to a Department of Defense school-Patrick Henry Elementary. It has been a great experience for our girls. Charlotte, 8, is in a multi-age classroom participating in a program similar to Montessori. Katie, 6, has the most wonderful kindergarten teacher. Ms. Erickson has given Katie the gift of loving school. What more could you ask for?

We have Armed Forces Network TV and radio. They program a large variety of American television. It’s about a season behind but not too bad. I am horribly jealous that I haven’t seen the new season of The West Wing, but I get to see castles and centuries old cathedrals on a regular basis so I consider it a fair trade.

We love living in Europe, but sometimes service comes with a price you don’t expect to pay. In October, my sister, Paula, who bravely fought a decades-long battle with melanoma, died. I couldn’t make it to say good-bye. I tried to get there, and the Army did all it could to help, but the distance was just too great and the time just too short. My family made it to San Diego to go to her memorial service. My Father turned 80 years old this year, and I worry about him and what this separation will do to my children’s memory of their Papa. He misses us, but we send pictures and talk to him daily, making him an every day part of our lives. I hope it bridges the distance but you can never replace actually being there. Stephen’s parents are experts at being part of their grand children’s lives long distance. My father-in-law, David, is a retired Lt. Colonel and my mother-in-law, Madonna, is an officer’s wife extraordinaire. We are raising second generation Army brats.

Military spouses are remarkable people. We can stretch a dollar, make friends in a commissary line, move our families every few years, be both mom and dad when needed and are often called upon to turn lemons into lemonade. Missed anniversaries, and there have been a few, are celebrated when he comes home like they’ve never passed.

When Stephen goes to the field to train, often for weeks at the time, my girls and I have little rituals to help with missing our daddy. We eat pancakes for dinner and write letters to daddy together. We pray for his safe and speedy return. Most of all we pray for peace. We go to church, CRE and after school activities. In short, we keep our routine. If the kids have the stability of normal things kids do, they handle the stress much better. When I need help, I turn to sisters in arms, my fellow spouses understand. We lift each other up, so we are very strong. We hold each other’s babies and cry on each other’s shoulders. We both love and curse the Army. We didn’t enlist or receive a commission but rather are in this for life. All because we happen to have fallen in love with a soldier.

I know that sounds naive and romantic but it’s true. I never thought about the possibility of him going to war even though I had just watched the Gulf War from inside a newsroom. I have heard people who have little or no concept of my life say dispassionately, “They knew what they were getting into so they have no room to complain.” The truth is that until you live it you have no idea. No one could have foreseen the world events that have lead to the deaths of over a thousand of our soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors. Almost every day, unimaginable anguish is visited upon a family just like mine.

I live a life of service. I chose this life, even though it is a hard row to hoe, and I’ve been known to hate it from time to time. It is full of rewards as well as hardship and duty. I will never forget cutting the cord of a friend’s newborn baby even though I wish it had been his deployed father doing the honors. Every deployment brings great sorrow and loneliness but it also brings me closer to the spouses I serve with, who’s friendship I treasure. The parting of deployment also brings homecoming with the amazing joy of seeing the man I love and have missed for the first time in too many days to count. I can feel the heartbreak of separation lift from my shoulders being replaced by his warm embrace. And for a while, everything is right with the world.

The last 18 months have brought great hardship to our families. So much time apart, so many deaths. Our soldiers have missed many milestones in their children’s lives. Last year, Stephen was deployed “down range” to Operation Iraqi Freedom. He missed our baby Lydia’s first Christmas. I still cry when I think about it. Our home was full of boxes but decorated in our holiday finest. Santa came of course and Stephen was able to call on Christmas Eve to read “T’was The Night Before Christmas” to the girls. We took lots of pictures but it was really hard to be merry and celebrate with the empty place he’d left.

Our homes are often short a parent, but we make the best of it. We try not to let our children dwell on the horror that might be in the next phone call or knock on the door. We lean on each other and march on. We plan trips, have dinners and play bunko to pass the time. It doesn’t quite fill the emptiness, but we try.

Deployments are tough. They train and train for the mission, the mission at hand, is war. Today there are three kinds of soldiers-those training to deploy, those deployed and those returning form deployment. During a deployment, whether training or real life, the possibility of Stephen not coming home to us is real. I try not to dwell on it but with every death in the Global War on Terrorism the reality is driven home. Every day he was deployed to the gulf I worried. I was one of the lucky ones who knew where her spouse was and we were in close contact. But every time there was a lapse in communication I panicked.

Having worked in the world of television news, I am a news junky. I watched a lot CNN. Whether I should have is a topic of deliberation. Did it increase my anxiety or empower me with information? I believe the latter. We are lucky; we haven’t lost any friends in Iraq or Afghanistan. But we do have so many friends there and I worry about them a lot. Many families are serving “down range.” My girls’ Uncle Bob, his brother and brother-in-law are all there. While Auntie Tammy is on the home front taking care of the family and praying. The most important men in her children’s lives are in the war zone We always had to be careful to not talk about when Stephen was coming home over the phone or e-mail. I didn’t even tell our families the details of the homecoming until after he was safely in our house. The Army calls it force protection. We practice force protection all the time, we take different routes when we drive around town, and we don’t wear clothing that have American emblems or are distinctly American. We try to blend in so that we aren’t the objects of interest to anyone looking to harm Americans. We haven’t personally encountered anti-American sentiment, but it is out there.

Military spouses are a beautifully diverse group. We are men and women, not one race or religion. We are liberal fire breathing Democrats, right wing conservative Republicans and independent voters. We are all united by the love we feel for our soldier and all soldiers. Regardless of how we voted in the last election or whether we agree with the war in Iraq we carry one banner: “Support Our Troops.” It is not a political slogan for us; it is our way of life.

Please don’t think our lives are all doom and gloom. We live in Europe, and are enjoying all that it has to offer. My children are happy, well adjusted, pros at traveling and make friends easily. They know that even when we move we keep the friends we leave behind. The next assignment brings adventure and more friends to add to the Christmas card list. My girls have seen Amsterdam in the spring, skied for the first time on the Alps and spent their Thanksgiving holiday exploring the wonders of London. And those are just this year’s highlights. Our family has roots; we put them down every time we unpack our boxes. We plant them shallow so they move easily, but they are well nourished and carefully tended. Home is truly where the Army sends us.

My soldier is home now, but almost certainly will go again. I try not to think about it and just enjoy the time we have together now. I lean on my faith a lot and pray for the spouses who are alone and those who have paid the ultimate price for loving a soldier.

Beth Knotts ’91 is married to Maj. Stephen Knotts ’90.

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