Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of requirements and analysis at Coast Guard headquarters, for 14 years. She serves as an advisor for the Military Family Advisory Network and a research analyst for Blue Star Families.
Written by Shelley Kimball
One of my favorite things about writing this column is the chance to meet and learn from so many different Coast Guard families. We are not all cut from the same cloth, but we share a common foundation.
Dual military couples, those who both serve, have their own unique challenges balancing their work lives and personal lives, such as transferring to the same place, planning a career trajectory that serves both, or working out family schedules. Three such couples shared their experiences and advice on how to make it work.
Amy and Bruce Baker
Amy and Bruce Baker have been married for about a year and a half, and both are active duty Coast Guard. Amy, an intelligence specialist, is a chief petty officer with the intelligence coordination center, and Bruce, a marine science technician, is also a chief petty officer with the Atlantic Strike Team. They are not stationed together, and they haven’t been since about a month after Bruce proposed. He left Alaska and moved to New Jersey. When Amy’s transfer season came up the next year, Washington, DC, was what was available.
“So, for us, not being colocated has been our biggest challenge,” Amy said. “It’s hard on the kids who would love to have him every day, and it’s hard on Bruce because when he hasn’t been deployed or in training, he makes the 3 and a half-hour drive every weekend to be with us.”
Those kinds of challenges require flexibility, Bruce said.
“Be willing to make sacrifices for your family and make it work, like leaving at 3 a.m. Monday morning for work in New Jersey so I’m in DC Sunday night to put our daughter to bed, or Skyping bedtime stories when I’m gone,” Bruce said.
As both are looking toward senior chief petty officer and warrant officer opportunities, they determined that it was going to become even more difficult to be stationed together, and they were not willing to live apart again. For that reason, they have decided that Bruce will retire this summer when he reaches 20 years of service in the Coast Guard.
Amy said that she also has to find her place as both an active duty member and a wife. She said that she enjoys going to events in a pretty dress as Bruce’s wife. She has the same worries and concerns as other Coast Guard spouses – finding good schools, setting up play dates, and finding her place in a community. But because she is also an active duty member, that can be challenging.
“From time to time it’s been hard to fit in with other spouses but, I have been blessed to have some great spouse friends at every unit I have been at,” she said.
A positive aspect of being a dual Coast Guard couple is that they have a precise understanding of each other’s jobs. They can give each other advice as peers on how to handle situations at work. They are understanding about deployments and training dates.
“I’m really lucky that I’ve gotten to serve with my wife as a peer in the same Chief’s mess,” Bruce said. “I’m more proud of her accomplishments than of my own. It’s been very difficult to be apart and remember that for the service the needs of the service have to come first but it’s been worth it.”
Maggie and Brian Doyle
Maggie and Brian Doyle have been married for almost six years, and they are expecting their first child. Maggie is in the Navy, and she is a test flight officer at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. Brian is stationed at the National Command Center at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, DC.
Their greatest challenge is deployments. They have both worked on operational commands at the same time. Brian had multiple two-month cutter deployments, and then deployments with the African Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership and Deepwater Horizon, and at the same time, Maggie had 6-month deployments.
That meant that in their first year of marriage, they saw each other a total of 49 days. It wasn’t until their third year of marriage that they felt as if they were experiencing their real first year of married life. That year, they were both stationed in Washington, DC, for staff tours.
“It definitely takes a lot of balance and commitment to make everything work when you don’t see your spouse for more than a few months each year,” they said. “Finding ways to stay close, even while apart, is critical. For us, that meant a lot of Skype movie dates and frequent emails to cover daily life.”
When it comes to managing orders for both for their careers, they said they have had positive experiences and they try to remain flexible. For example, when Maggie was in Jacksonville, Florida, Brian was able to get orders there. Maggie tried to get follow-on orders there, but it wasn’t possible. They were able to get their detailers and department heads to speak to each other, and they found a solution.
“We both understand that there will come times when one person will have to sacrifice their ideal job or position to take another job that allows us to stay together,” they said. “We try to alternate who takes the hit each time, but the timing of transfers affects that decision more than anything else.”
Timing and flexibility has never mattered more than ever, as they await the birth of their first child. They had been set to both transfer in 2015, but Maggie’s stint in test pilot school delayed her transfer by a year. Brian had intended to extend a year to match the transfer time. Then, Maggie got three-year orders when she expected two-year orders. Their baby is due in May.
So, Brian has decided to take a two-year temporary separation. During that time, he will stay home with the baby, finish graduate school, and compete in triathlons and duathlons at the world level. They hope to synch their transfer schedules back up in 2017.
They are both grateful that they can find options to keep both of their careers and personal goals moving forward.
“I believe that being able to accomplish our own dreams in life, while supporting each other through it has made us stronger individuals and a stronger couple,” Maggie said. “It’s also nice that we can speak each others’ languages. While being a military spouse is still hard on each of us, it is a lot easier to be understanding of your spouses’ sudden schedule changes and deployments when we each face the same thing in our own careers.”
Irene and Taylor Mitchell
Irene and Taylor Mitchell have been married for five years. Irene is in the Medical Service Corps in the Air Force and Taylor is an electrician’s mate in the Coast Guard. Currently, Irene is stationed at Andersen Air Force Base, while Taylor is assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Assateague. They are both in Guam. Irene has been in for nearly 10 years, and Taylor has 14 years in.
“It is hard work, but the sacrifice is worth it, as we are both serving our country,” Irene said.
The greatest challenges have been working out schedules and transfers, Taylor said.
“Being married can be a challenge in itself, and then to throw the military factor into it makes it a bit harder,” Taylor said. “You have to be okay with being away a lot or having a sporadic schedule. Just remember the reasons why you were with that person in the first place and to roll with what comes your way.”
They have PCSed twice so far, and they have been able to stay together. They communicate with the detailer or assignment officer as early as possible, and they pick places that have a lot of billets available for them.
“But most importantly, be flexible with locations; to us it doesn’t matter where we get stationed, as long as it’s in line with our careers and we get to be together,” Irene said.
They have also had to determine which career will lead their plans and for how long. Taylor is closer to retirement, so Irene follows, they said. When he reaches 20 years in, they will revisit that plan.
“I have one more transfer left and then we can focus on moving for her career path,” Taylor said.
One of the challenges they face is planning a family.
“Family planning is hard with such demanding careers,” Irene said. “When’s the best time to plan for a family? Right now our plan is for him to stay at home when he retires and raise our family, but who knows?”
Being a female active duty member has it’s own obstacles, too, Irene said. She said she wishes there weren’t a stereotype that only men serve in the military.
“When we meet people, they immediately ask him which service he is in, while they basically ignore me,” she said. “Thankfully, he always makes it a point to mention that I serve as well.”
But, on a larger scale, she said she wants others to know that there are women serving in the military effectively while still enjoying a strong family life.
“I wish people knew that being a girl doesn’t preclude you from being a good Coastie, sailor, marine, soldier or airman,” Irene said. “There is still that stigma that women don’t belong in the military. I see a lot of women leave the service when they get married but the men still serve. It can be done successfully! My 10 year anniversary in the service is coming up, and I am ready for the next 10.”
A positive aspect of being married to another active duty member is the financial stability, Taylor said. Also, being in Guam, they have enjoyed the opportunity to bring members of the Coast Guard and the Air Force together.
But most importantly, both said, is having a partner who understands what their work is like and how much it means to them. Irene said she loves her work and she feels lucky to be married to someone who supports her fully. Taylor said that having both patience and understanding on both sides makes it all much easier.
“There is a level of understanding that when one of us is deployed, underway, or just plain working are butts off,” Taylor said. “The other one knows why and that it’s a part of the life. It can still be a struggle but it makes it easier.”
Do you and your spouse serve? Share your own experiences as a dual-military couple in the comments below!
The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.