Military couples struggle with separation at Valentine's Day

Staff Sgt. Jeremy Harris and his wife, Shastity Driscoll Harris. (Source: Facebook)
Staff Sgt. Jeremy Harris and his wife, Shastity Driscoll Harris. (Source: Facebook)

MOBILE, AL (RNN) - Jeremy Harris will not exchange presents or spend a romantic evening at home with his wife on Valentine's Day. Instead, he'll be in Thailand.

The Marine staff sergeant will be sailing the coast of the small Asian island, joining 140,000 troops currently deployed in Europe and East Asia. For this Marine marriage, it is one of a number of "firsts" they have celebrated apart.

The couple are first-time parents and Valentine's Day is their first anniversary.

"I intentionally planned our son's 6-month check-up on that day," Shastity Driscoll Harris said. "Later that night, I'm having dinner with my mom and my godmother."

The Mobile, AL, couple are among the thousands of military families who will spend the holiday of lovers with dozens of their closest friends - their bunkmates, commanders, fellow sailors and soldiers, or friends, grandmothers and children.

Natasha Rudolph of Pensacola, FL, whose husband Fredrick Rudolph is serving in with the Navy in Japan, said she plans to spend the day with their three children.

"The kids keep me going," she said. "I have to explain to them that 'Daddy is away, and he will return, and he is doing this for us.'"

Sometimes it's hard to deal with her husband's absence, she said, but it has its advantages.

"Right now, most of the responsibility is on me, but after his deployment our marriage will grow stronger," Natasha Rudolph said. "The key to our marriage is communication. We believe one must trust in order to love."

Life's not much easier if you're the man who is left behind when your wife is away - especially if you have to pick up the slack with parenting and household chores.

"I didn't realize what I had until she was deployed," said Brandon Willie, whose wife, Capt. Betina Willie, was deployed from February 2007 to April 2008.

Brandon Willie said for him, the first month his wife was gone was the most hectic.

"I woke up at 5 a.m. to get ready for work and get our 2-year-old and 6-month-old ready for day care," he said. "If the routine was broken by as little as 10 minutes, it seemed as if the entire week's routine would be someway broken."

Although his wife needed some time to adjust to life back home, Brandon Willie said their marriage had grown stronger in their separation.

"She was very jumpy with fireworks and loud noises, and her frame of mind had to adjust to getting used to not being in a threatening environment," he said. "I appreciated her so much more when she came home, and I believe that made our connection stronger."

This year, the Huntsville, AL, couple and their three children will spend Valentine's Day together.

Many organizations offer help to military families who are struggling to deal with overseas deployments, especially during holidays such as Christmas and Valentine's Day.

Operation Gratitude, a volunteer-based organization that sends care packages and letters of support to U.S. service members who are deployed, teamed up with Kabloom, an online flower shop, to provide all service members a $15 discount for floral arrangements for Valentine's Day.

"We provided these discount gifts to the troops, the company otherwise would have donated the funds to Operation Gratitude for every sale, but we asked that they instead give the donation as a discount to the troops," said Carolyn Blaschek, a spokeswoman for Operation Gratitude.

On the group's website, many troops expressed their gratitude for the work they do.

"I would like to thank you not only for the package I received from Operation Gratitude, but also for all you do for each one of the dedicated men and women who serve our great nation," said Gen. Ray Odierno. "I am truly humbled by the support you, your volunteers and you generous sponsors have shown those who sacrifice so much for our country."

Fortunately, for Jeremy and Shastity Harris, the clock is ticking on their time apart. Mom and son will join her husband in Japan at the end of February.

"We plan to celebrate our anniversary as soon as I get there," Shastity Harris said. "We are both over the phase of being sad and are excited about finally being able to be together as family."