A gust of frigid rain pummeled my face. The hems of my Navy uniform pants wicked rainwater as I splashed across the sidewalk. Inside the dry safety of my car, I cranked the seat heaters to high. It was another stormy day in the long string of stormy days we'd had so far that winter. It was another day Eric would be soaked to the bone and hypothermic as he biked across town.
Faced with a half year of separation following my deployment to Iraq, Eric left the idyllic, sunny Southern California town where he attended graduate school to join me in Rhode Island.
Because the arrangement was temporary, we shared a car. In theory, Eric could have shuttled me to work and had the car to himself all day. The problem was, Eric was just a boyfriend. While he was allowed to drop me off, he was not allowed to come back on base to pick me up. And so he hunkered down and braved the rain.
One of the most important rituals in a military ceremony is to recognize the honoree's spouse. The spouse is called on stage to receive a bouquet of flowers: a symbolic thank you for the sacrifices he or she has made on behalf of the spouse's military service. These are always occasions for tears. The spouse's sacrifice has been great and it's been anything but easy.
Sometimes, when I observe these ceremonies, a lump forms in my throat. The sacrifices Eric made because of my military service ran a lot deeper than a few months of rainy bike rides. For the duration of my time in the Navy, Eric was just a boyfriend and, therefore, he was never recognized for his sacrifices.
The truth is, in many ways, the sacrifices of a service member's boyfriend or girlfriend are no different than those made by a spouse, but they make them without the benefits, recognition, commitment or support.
For a civilian, dating a servicemember is a lot more complicated than dating another civilian. Yes, there are all the acronyms that have to be translated and the silly little things you have to do (like sneaking your significant other in the backdoor of the gym so you can work out together), but there is so much more to it than that.
Eric has told me that one ofthe most profound peculiarities of dating a service member was the presence of a third party in the relationship. "It's like you're the most important thing to them, but Uncle Sam is more important."
It was our third date when the shadow of the Navy first altered our plans together. I had a rare four-day weekend and we planned to go rock climbing in Yosemite. I was not allowed to leave a designated radius from my duty station and Yosemite was significantly outside this distance.
Although I knew Eric had been eagerly anticipating the trip, I was afraid of being caught and I chickened out at the last minute.
We had only been dating a few months when I moved across country to my new duty station in Rhode Island. A few months after that, I received orders to Iraq.
"It's a scary prospect to date someone in the military because they are largely absentee," Eric told me once. "It's contrary to the idea of what a relationship is."
In addition to the separation, the deployment raised sobering questions we would have never faced so early in our relationship as a civilian-civilian couple.
As my colleagues prepared powers of attorneys for their spouses, I had to decide if I should list Eric as a life insurance beneficiary and include him in my will.
He was just a boyfriend, but he also was the man I hoped to eventually marry. If I was hurt in Iraq, I wanted him to be the first to know. If I died, I wanted to recognize him not for the title held, but for his significance in my life.
Many military couples mitigate these complications by getting married right before deployment. This ensures rights of the significant other in the case of an injury or death, and it also provides perks, such as medical insurance, commissary benefits, a pay increase, and access to family support programs.
Eric and I had been dating less than a year when I left and we did not opt to do this, buthe supported me through deployment like a spouse, nevertheless. He sent care packages, letters, e-mails, and he made funny little videos to keep me up-to-date on his life back in the United States. He ran a multitude of errands for me and he handled the details of our post-deployment plans.
Most importantly, he was available on the other end of the phone every time I called, no matter the hour, no matter what else I was interrupting. This was no small commitment; I called him almost every day of my deployment. It was because of this steady connection with him that I didn't implode from all the small stresses that add up while serving in Iraq.
Eric and I married a year after I got out of the Navy. Although he now wears the rank of husband, he is no more important to me than when he was just a boyfriend. He is still the same person I've loved all along and I know it was his continued patience and flexibility during our early years thatmade our relationship possible.
We've all heard our share of heartless "Dear John" stories, but it's important to not discount the contributions of the significant other during the happy periods of the relationship. Even if the couple never progresses to engagement or marriage, the service member's significant other has bent twiceas far to compensate for the servicemember not being able to bend at all.
The military-civilian dating relationship is difficult, but there are things each party can do to make it easier. With our one-car situation in Rhode Island, for example, I started asking questions around base and learned that my commanding officer could write a special permission letter that would allow Eric to pick me up from work. It wasn't much, but anything that can ease external stress on your relationship is important, especially when you're working on the foundation of something you hope will last a lifetime.
As a former service member who had a civilian boyfriend, I have an appreciation for spouses' organizations that extend invitations to significant others, especially during deployments. I also think it's fantastic that the Reserve and National Guard's Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program welcomes spouses, as well as service members' boyfriends and girlfriends. After all, every military spouse was first a girlfriend or boyfriend.
As I look back on the years when my husband was just a boyfriend, I realize the guilty feeling I sometimes have at military ceremonies is not just because Eric never received a showy bouquet of flowers from the Navy. It is because I failed to thank him enough for his sacrifices.
Questions for you
How did your experience as a service member's girlfriend or boyfriend differ from your experience as a military spouse?
How can a service member make the dating relationship easier for his or her significant other, and vice versa?
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