Marriages almost always involve a balancing act between the couple’s careers and schedules, where compromise plays a big role in the success of the relationship. For dual-military spouses, the demanding careers and lifestyle of the military is an extra obstacle to navigate.
SFC Olga L. Sam met her husband, SFC Lorenzo Sam, at U.S. Army base Ft. Meade, Maryland. They worked in the same unit, Sam as a platoon sergeant and her husband a squad leader.
“I was interested in how smart he was, and he was attracted to the fact that I was in charge,” Sam remarked.
The two had their first child together in late 2002 and were married in January, 2003, 10 days before Sam deployed to Iraq. 84,000 couples currently serve together in the United States military, with 36,000 having children. Relationships like Sam’s are often faced with long separations due to deployments or remote assignments. Though she did not want to leave her eight-month-old child and new husband, platoon sergeants were required to deploy with part of their platoon.
Returning home after half a year was different than Sam expected.
“When I came back from deployment my mind still had [my son] as a little baby,” Sam recalled. “He was, in fact, a toddler — running around and looking at me like he didn’t know me.”
Her husband deployed to Iraq just three months after Sam returned. Their son, O’Shun, developed a terrible case of separation anxiety, and Sam was unsure of how to manage him.
“Each time one of us deployed it made the other a single parent,” Sam stated.
The biggest help is . . .
Having the support of other military families. Sam’s command was also very understanding and compassionate of her situation, which made work much less stressful, as she could take a day off if she needed it. Becoming involved in a community that understands what it’s like to have a deployed spouse can make all the difference.
When her husband came back, he didn’t leave again until 2008, during which time the couple had another son, Estevan. He took it very hard when his father deployed to Afghanistan, and thought that he had abandoned them.
“I didn’t realize it until he started drawing the family without Lorenzo,” Sam said. “It took some talking and convincing until he understood that daddy was at work far away.”
After 20 full years in the Army, Sam retired in December of 2008. At the time, she was experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and didn’t even know it. The illness wasn’t widely recognized or talked about, so she had not considered being treated. Her husband was also suffering from depression and PTSD, which strained their communication when he was home. Sam’s father, a psychiatrist, had to explain what was happening to her.
“Dual-PTSD parents can be difficult to understand,” Sam said.
“[Our children asked] ‘Why does daddy sleep downstairs and you sleep upstairs?’ They didn’t understand that if we slept in the same bed, no one would be able to rest. Either I kept him up tossing and turning or he kept me up with his nightmares and cold sweats.”
A nine-month tour in Afghanistan in 2009 marked the last of Lorenzo Sam’s deployments. The family remained together until 2015, when he was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Instead of selling their house and moving for the duration of his placement, Sam and their children stayed behind in Maryland.
“We lived for the long weekends and holidays,” Sam reflected.
Before her husband retired in September, 2017, Sam was diagnosed with cancer. He was allowed to leave his station at Fort Bragg and return to Maryland to take care of her and their family. Although Sam was devastated at the news of her disease, she was relieved to have her husband coming home — finally, for the last time.
In both of their two-decade services in the military, the Sams have had their fair share of struggles. They’ve each experienced multiple deployments, separations from their children, and dealt with symptoms of PTSD. Sam is grateful for their mutual understanding of these circumstances; she feels that she knows how to be there for him, and vice versa. They also share all the same benefits, including the GI Bill, which they will pass down to their two sons.
For dual-military couples today:
“Remember that you both need to have peace at home,” Sam advised. “Realize that you will experience strenuous situations, which will require understanding and patience.”
And remember the positives! As a dual-military couple, fostering healthy communication and compassion for each other is important. Time together can be rare, but more special because of it. You can use your shared experiences to not only become stronger service members and people, but to be stronger as a unit.