The path of a military career, for both the service members and the families supporting them, seems less like a straight line and more like one with peaks, valleys and curves. My husband, Dustin, and I have always called it a “long and winding road,” and it’s why our wedding song was the Beatles song by the same name.
From the first day of our marriage, we were on that long road, headed to flight school with a U-Haul towing behind us. And every day since, although we’ve both been moving toward the same goal, we’ve had many moments in which it felt like we were moving in separate, parallel tracks. This is probably true of all marriages, but when your relationship is punctuated by periods of extreme differences (even different time zones), it sometimes feels like you are leading different lives.
The military likes to use the word “tempo” to describe the pace of deployments. It seems fitting to use it for military marriages, too, as in, many times, Dustin and I have been operating at different tempos. I’ll never forget when he returned from a yearlong deployment overseas, and all I had looked forward to were lazy days together at home. I pictured us taking walks after dinner or riding our bikes around the neighborhood. But Dustin was returning from a “high tempo” assignment, and on one of his first nights home, he seemed restless. “Do you think we should go to Disney World?” he said. “I feel like we should go do something.”
It took awhile for him to reduce his “tempo” to be more in line with ours at home.
For 18 years of marriage, my mission has been raising three boys, often on my own, and Dustin’s has been more of the traditional military kind. We haven’t always understood the needs of the other, which is understandable when you consider that for countless months, Dustin was living places overseas that I had never seen, and I was dealing with parenting issues that seemed trivial in comparison.
In 2013, we made the difficult decision to keep the family in Maine while Dustin took two more assignments and finished his military career. It was an arrangement that not everyone understood. Luckily, no one else, outside of us, needed to. But it was never easy. Monday through Friday, Dustin lived in one state while we lived in another, and we traveled (across more of that long, winding road) to be with each other on the weekend.
It all came to an end this weekend when Dustin was relieved of his final command at a ceremony the Navy fittingly calls a Change of Command. In this ceremony, the outgoing commanding officer looks at the incoming one, they salute, and they speak the words, “I relieve you, Sir,” and “I stand relieved.” There is no question for those watching who is now the current leader. (Side note: a version of this would have been helpful at the end-of-the-day hand-off when we were parenting toddlers.) Dustin doesn’t officially retire until June. Until then, he’s on what the military ominously calls “terminal leave.” But the Change of Command marked the moment when my husband’s tempo and mine will finally merge together.
The morning of the Change of Command was illustrative of how our past 18 years have been. I took the boys to breakfast and promised them bowling before the ceremony. But the bowling alley was closed, so I took three disappointed, ornery boys to the Navy Exchange (a shopping center) instead. Then we got dressed in our formal best, and if you have children, you know how easily that went.
When we showed up at the ceremony, Dustin was already there in his choker whites, and for a moment, I envied how much easier his morning must have been. Of course, it wasn’t. I’d know this later when I had to move his command pin from one side of his uniform to the other. He was hot and sweaty. Just like all the years before, he had been dealing with a different set of frustrations and challenges while I was across the base listening to how I’d ruined our 10-year-old’s life by not leaving enough time for bowling.
For most of the ceremony, Dustin sat on stage in a row of other uniformed military officers, an American flag behind them. I was in the front row, with our children (two of which had to be separated) beside me. It was “his world” and mine face-to-face for one last time. All that was between us now was a stage and the words “I stand relieved.” We had made it.
Then Dustin stood up to give his speech and said the words I’ll never forget. I’m supposed to be the writer of the family, but he stole the show with this: “Sarah, you’ve been the glue that holds our family together. It’s been a long and winding road, but today it’s leading me to your door for good.”