Whenever I have either been waiting to board a plane or to pick someone up in an airport terminal, I find myself people watching in every direction. And almost every time, there has been that one small group that catches my eye more the rest. Usually, it’s a small family or group of friends surrounding a member of the armed forces. Whether they’re saying their final goodbyes or seeing each other for the first time in months, I would put myself in the place of the wife or girlfriend and wonder if I’d be able to handle such an intense relationship.
Up until a few months ago, a military relationship was still a “what if” kind of daydream to me. But now that I’m dating a soldier in the U.S. Army, that slim possibility has become a reality, and I’ve put myself into that unknown territory. Besides grandparents, I’m the first person many of my friends and I have known in such a situation. And I’ve received every reaction from “Aw, that’s so romantic” and “You’re so strong and brave” to “That’s stupid” and “You’re in college, why would you do that?” These reactions and the countless follow-up questions made me think that I couldn’t be the only one in the dark and curious about extreme long distance dating.
Dating someone in the military is a lot different than the typical romance (if there is such a thing as typical). The distance and time apart multiply the problems average couples face on a regular basis. Temptations, loneliness and a lack of time spent together are the most common deal breakers of military relationships, but if both people are committed and understand what it will take to avoid those risks, it’s possible for the relationship to last beyond the soldier’s time spent at home.
Spc. Dave Granger, 20, explained that he’s seen very few successful relationships since he’s been in the Army. While he’s optimistic for his current relationship, he’s seen too many bad break ups among his fellow soldiers to have any positives for being in a military relationship. “The distance always ends up being the killer,” he said. “The other person almost always just gets lonely.” Granger said cheating is the biggest problem he’s seen, not only with partying college students but even among couples that have been married for years. “You don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t know what you’re doing,” he said.
Sheila Smith, program leader of 4-H Youth Development and MSU Extension military liaison, has worked with a number of families and couples struggling with a military lifestyle. “Relationships are tested with time and the dynamics of the individuals,” she said. “There are elements of trust and elements of risk.” She explained that military relationships aren’t necessarily stronger or weaker than other relationships, but there is additional stress because of the deployment issue.
“I’m not going to lie and say there isn’t temptation,” said Carla Fiorenzo, a recent Michigan State University graduate and girlfriend of a U.S. Marine. “You just have to do what you have to do to make it work.” She explained that they usually talk on the phone throughout the week. However, there are times when it’s difficult to simply find the time to talk. It’s often the case that she’s really busy during the only times he can call.
Fiorenzo said that the distance hasn’t been a point of contention for them because for most of their 14-month relationship, he has been away. “I knew from the second we started dating he was going away,” she said. “At this point, I haven’t seen him in five months, so I’m used to not seeing him.” She went on to say that it will be weird when he comes home in a couple of months, because she will actually get to see him in person, a rarity for the couple.
For other couples, the distance requires an adjustment. Emily Guith is still getting used to not seeing her boyfriend after he left a few weeks ago for his training as a naval officer. She explained a lot of their daily routines are now impossible, and that’s forced unexpected changes, however simple they may be. “Just calling him when I get out of work or going over to his place after class are things you take for granted,” she said. “It’s hard when you realize you don’t have all of those little things.”
Granger explained that a lot of the time it’s the lack of those little things, or simply being around, that cause a lot of relationships to end. The partners that are away have to work harder to make up for the fact that they aren’t there. “I’m going to do everything I can to make this work out,” he said. “Just straight up being there for her and always being the best boyfriend I can.” He explained that he understands why a relationship under normal circumstances would have worked out, but because the military changes things, they fail.
It’s not just the distance that figures into the military dating equation however. There has to be an understanding between the two people that they and the relationship may change. “For infantry people, [the military] changes who you are,” Granger said. “You’re not the same person when you come back, and some people don’t like that.” The Army is a different lifestyle that’s hard to understand from the outside, and he said, it’s different being around civilians rather than those he’s surrounded by on a daily basis.
Guith and Fiorenzo agreed that it takes a certain kind of strong person to wait for someone in the service. “It’s a lot harder than you think,” Guith said. “You have to stay strong for yourself and for whoever you’re dating.” Fiorenzo explained that she knows a lot of girlfriends that go all out to proclaim their love for their boy in the war, but that’s not her style of coping with the situation. “I’m not that girlfriend that says, ‘I love my Marine,’ and scribbles ‘Marines’ all over my notebook,” she said. “I don’t have to tell him 20 times a day that I love him. It’s a general understanding.”
But just because Fiorenzo and her boyfriend are serious and realize they will end up settling down together doesn’t mean wedding bells will be ringing any time soon. A lot of young soldiers get married during a short leave before or right after their deployment, sometimes only knowing the person for a few months. But for her, marriage isn’t something to be rushed. “I don’t understand why I’d get married before he gets shipped off. What does that get me besides a ring on my finger?” Fiorenzo said.
There are a lot of reasons some decide to get married, and love isn’t always one of them, Granger said. While some people say they’ve fallen in love, there are a lot of guys that will marry a girl simply to get the extra pay. Others have a fear of dying alone, and want to get married just to be married. “Sometimes they think it’ll stop the girl from cheating, but a ring doesn’t stop anything,” he said. Granger has heard of several guys going home and seeing their friends’ wives take off their rings and act like they don’t have anyone. Other times, some will go home to their wife of 10 years and see the divorce papers lying on the table without notice, he said. While there are a lot of people who stay together, their relationship rarely gets stronger, and the connection doesn’t stay the same, Granger added.
Smith explained there are a lot of challenges for young soldiers that get married because a lot of the time they haven’t gone to college and don’t have the same resources to start a life after the service. “They’re still growing and finding out who they are,” she said.
With so many negative possibilities resulting from a military relationship, why bother trying to make something work? “I can’t change what my heart is telling me,” Granger said. He went on to explain that most people in the service find a comfort knowing that they have that special someone waiting for them when they get back. It’s hard to maintain friendships, so it’s nice for a soldier to know there’s someone else besides a few close friends and family.
For the people back home, it’s more than just the idea of having a man or woman in uniform that makes the relationship worth pursuing. “It’s when you come to care about a person that makes it worth the wait,” Guith said. While it’s sometimes hard to see other couples go out on dates and spend time together, she said, “It’s just one of those things that make you look forward to the day they come back.”
Although Fiorenzo said the distance hasn’t helped them grow as a couple, they have been able to grow as individuals. “I’m at a selfish point in my life,” she said. “In a way it’s nice because we can be together, but we can figure out our own thing.” She said that this kind of long distance relationship works for them because of the kind of people they are separately. “I wouldn’t recommend it, but I wouldn’t say no to it either,” Fiorenzo said.
Smith mentioned that the Michigan National Guard offers a variety of resources for military families, those in relationships and singles. There are workshops to focus on relationships as well as counseling. “An important part of the military culture is to provide a network and commitment to the family of the unit and to their families back home,” she said.
So while military relationships may not be anyone’s preferred style of dating, they aren’t always doomed to failure. Likewise, the romance that some people relate to them is usually far-fetched. Guith said that a lot of people think her relationship is endearing and romantic because she and her boyfriend write real letters to each other. Her boyfriend doesn’t have a computer and he rarely has access to the phone, so they don’t have another option. Some of my friends had a similar reaction when I told them about my new relationship. I still find people telling me that I should write sappy love letters to him everyday like in the olden days.
Although there are many obvious differences and complications the military may add to relationships, they still have the same basic foundations as any other. As mysterious as this Baghdad-Lansing relationship may seem, parts of it are still familiar. We’re making this work just like any other couple wants to make their relationship work. We still care about each other and realized the same uncertainty going into this as anyone goes into any relationship. I suppose what I had imagined when I was younger in the airport was not what the time spent together or apart would be like. I had only thought about the moments of coming and going and how I would feel watching him leave or seeing him walk through the door for the first time in months. And now that I’m actually in those in between moments, I find myself imagining that welcome back all over again.