We’ve been talking about all things Valentine this week – romance, love letters, hearts, love and loved ones. So, I thought it was only appropriate that this week’s interview be with two people who are near and dear to my own heart, Ryan and Brandie Klaahsen.
Brandie and I have been friends since we were lieutenants and she introduced herself with the following phrase: “Don’t you ever smile?” Over more than a decade, our friendship has made it through a joint deployment to Saudi (she was targets, I was collections), travel trips to Rome and Holland, Spain and Luxembourg, and even a cross-country US trip that involved a dinosaur in the middle of a random field and a stay at the coolest hotel ever, and struggles with identity, careers, relationships, and parenthood (or, in my case, attempts at parenthood). It has even survived a hilarious photography session and incredible distance.
When she met Ryan, I liked him instantly – how could I not when she described him as the male version of me? No, really, I liked him because he “got” her, because he challenged her in good ways and got my “I don’t really do hugs” friend to use the word “cuddle” and because he even got her to giggle, truly an astonishing feat. Not to mention the fact that he got my close-hold kind of friend to do this interview. (Did I mention already that I like this guy?)
Today, Ryan and Brandie are going to tell you how an Air Force officer turned Reservist turned DoD civilian met and married a Navy boy and how, despite the challenges, they keep making their love work. Their love story is uniquely theirs, but it has aspects in it that so many military and former military will recognize and maybe a few tricks that, if you’re struggling with your own military marriage, you can use to keep that love strong.
1) Every time I see a commercial where an online dating service is bragging about how many people it has brought together, I always joke that they have nothing on the US military. How did the military play a part in bringing you two together?
Ryan: I lived in San Diego but went TAD [temporary duty] to Newport News, VA as the project manager for the USS Carl Vinson refueling and overhaul in August 2009. My college friend Joe (another Naval Officer) was assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon and worked with Brandie. Joe and Brandie would talk about this friend in San Diego, but Brandie was not interested in long distance dating.
Brandie: I didn’t know Joe very well; he was another random Navy guy on watch. We got into a quick conversation of my lifestyle preference – I’m totally an outdoorsy girl. At the end of our brief conversation, Joe declared, “Why aren’t you married?,” and quickly segued into, “I know the perfect guy for you.” I was skeptical, of course. After revealing said “perfect guy” lived in San Diego, this “perfect guy” was out as any sort of dating option. I had gone through one too many long distance relationships during my stint in the military.
Ryan: I visited Joe in DC on my off weekends and, by October, Joe finally convinced Brandie to go out for a dinner get together with other friends. We met, but didn’t hit it off right away.
Brandie: Well, a month goes by and, low and behold, “perfect guy” is coming to town. Joe nonchalantly asks if I’d like to get together for drinks with his group of friends. As I had already had plans later in the evening, I decided, what the hell, I’ll stop by for drinks. I did end up meeting that “perfect guy,” Ryan was his name. His group of friends turned out to be 3 buddies, all from out of town, catching up since they hadn’t seen each other in a while. Ryan and I didn’t really hit it off, since this was more of a catch up with his buddies.
Ryan: So, I head back to San Diego, then return to DC for Veterans Day. Joe had a BBQ at his place and invited a bunch of people over, including Brandie. We talked, and, at the end of the night, I asked Brandie “What are we doing tomorrow?” hoping to maybe get a coffee or walk in DC with her.
Brandie: I’m not sure how Joe framed Ryan’s presence in DC but, for some reason, I was led to believe that Ryan was TAD long term to Norfolk. Well, I could deal with that, it’s only two hours away, right? By the end of the evening, Ryan asked me out for a date and I obliged with an outdoorsy adventure, a long hike in the Great Falls National Park, rain and all.
Ryan: And the rest, once you throw in a non-waterproof jacket, some rain, trees, terrible chili, and DC gridlock led to the beginning of a wonderful relationship.
Brandie: I did eventually figure out Ryan was on long term TDY orders after our first date – but the first date went so well, I had to throw out the absolutely-no-long-distance-relationship rule.
By the end of the day, Ryan asked what my Christmas plans were. Hmmm…going across country to visit some random guy. I would not have done this with a civilian. It’s not that I’m naïve, but I knew and worked with Ryan’s best friend. My boss knew and spent time with Ryan during his Navy career — if anything happened to me, Ryan would end up getting more destroyed than anything he could possibly do to me. Or at least that was my thinking. So I went and, by the end of the visit, we knew we were getting married. When it happens you just know.
2) Ironically, even though it helped bring you together, the military also kept you apart initially. Can you tell us a little about that?
Ryan: Well, I was assigned to COMNAVAIRPAC in San Diego and Brandie was a DoD civilian at the Pentagon. Between the both of us we managed to spend about a week a month with each other as we dated.
Brandie: After our first date, Ryan had no more TADs to Norfolk, but as I really liked this guy, I decided I could wait the time it would take for him to PCS. After all, he was due to PCS in the fall of the following year — 9 months at most, that was doable, right? You’ve got to love the military – instead of PCSing the following Fall, he didn’t even get orders until then (a year after we first met).
But, we were lucky because, when he did finally receive his orders, they were to DC! We were ecstatic. He wasn’t moving until Spring the next year, but at least we could start planning (I’m a big planner). I put my house on the market, we started to plan our wedding, etc. It was all good until his orders were then cancelled! (Insert a lot of foul language here!) Thankfully, Ryan had a new set of orders within a week or so, and we were back on track –DC in the Spring. All good, right?? Well, all good until the orders were pushed to September. Good grief, I never had these issues in the AF but it seemed the Navy was all over the place. Three sets of orders and three months shy of two years after our hiking date, and we’re finally set to live with each other. I never imagined we would be apart for that long, separated 13 months while dating, 8 months while being married. But it’s worth it for the right person.
3) Keeping a relationship going over long distances can be difficult. What were some of the ways you strengthened and maintained your relationship despite the distance?
Ryan: The primary tools were unlimited long distance minutes, some great cards, notes, and Skype. We started off and still strive to maintain a very transparent relationship. Because of the distance, we were forced to talk rather than just hang out. I think that allowed us to develop a strong relationship. This made the times we were able to spend together mean more.
Brandie: We all know it’s the little things. For me, I was so very fortunate I had an amazingly artistic friend [that would be me she’s talking about] who creates her own greeting cards. As she was in the military herself, knew the life of being apart from loved ones, she instinctively knew what I was thinking and brilliantly conveyed them into so many cards. Ryan and I still have all those notes we sent to each other – we’ll never get rid of those!!
Ryan: We managed to speak through one form or another almost every day. Of all the resources out there, Skype was the best because it allowed us to share more than just voices. To see how the other responds to words makes communication easier. Our life experiences were different, but similar, which allowed us to relate to each other’s stories and we both were active listeners; engaged in the each other’s stories.
Brandie: Technology was a big help. It’s hard for me to remember how we communicated back in the day before Skype. Notes are wonderful, the phone is great, but there’s something about being able to see your loved one, see the non-verbal communication, quickly work through simple misunderstandings that would have caused days or weeks of grief before video conferencing. There’s nothing like having a bad day and coming home to a hug or kiss. You don’t get that with long distant dating, but being able to at least see Ryan during those times was so very important. We could literally talk multiple times of day, talk about anything, little or big – not being limited by time or money, our only limitation was ourselves and a good internet connection.
Ryan: Positive attitudes, but not afraid to share what’s on our mind even though the other may not want to hear it. In general, respecting each other enough to be able to be honest with each other about the give and take that a life together will bring. We also learned each other’s limits and were willing to end the conversation when the other person needed a break. While we enjoyed talking to one another, we both had households to maintain on opposite coasts. Coupled with the time difference, developing a schedule / routine was key in keeping expectations managed.
Brandie: Of course, we made it through those almost two years because we also got to see each other about 1 week a month!! We both had good jobs, so we could afford all those airline tickets. We both had jobs where we could take leave, save leave, and take even more leave. It sucked Ryan was in San Diego, but at least he was on shore duty. If he were assigned to a ship, there’s no way we could have seen each other as much as we did. There are so many cons to the military, sometimes it just takes a good pro to make it work, like having shore duty!!
4) The military has once again separated you two – this time through a yearlong deployment – only now you also have a young child, your son, Chance. How has that made the separation more challenging and what ways have you found to cope with those challenges?
Ryan: We still try to maintain a similar communication approach when we are apart. Short Skype/Facetime sessions in my morning and a longer session in my evening (morning Brandie time), when I can see both Brandie and Chance. We take the sessions in stride. Chance’s patience for the VTC’s comes and goes and we don’t fault him for that. Conversations have shifted from couple adult conversations to those that revolve around Chance and entertaining him.
Brandie: My son constantly asks for dada! It’s so hard when he wants his daddy, harder when I have to tell him daddy’s not here. What’s interesting is that five months into the yearlong separation, our son is getting used to seeing daddy on the phone. At least when he does ask for his daddy, we can get daddy on the phone fairly quickly.
Ryan: I miss my family, but have been lucky enough to see them every day, which tempers the homesick/separation anxiety. I have several hobbies that keep me busy and my mind off the physical distance between us. I have several friends on station with me that can commiserate in our situations. It helps me to stay around like minded folk to keep centered.
Brandie: We are so very fortunate Ryan is in Bahrain. The Navy didn’t make Ryan go to Bahrain, we did have a choice – Bahrain, Afghanistan or sea duty (gone off and on for the next 3 years). We made the best choice for us. Our only limitation in physically seeing each other and spending time together were Bahrain’s visa requirements and the price of a couple of roundtrip tickets there. We’ve survived being away before, we can do it again and now with the little guy, we decided to break up the distance throughout the year, two visits, strategically placed throughout the year so we have no more than a 4 month separation.
Ryan: Also, we made the decision for Brandie to walk away from her DoD job and to take an annual sabbatical and focus on giving Chance the opportunity to spend his second year sharing time with both sets of grandparents and making the arduous trip to visit me in Bahrain. Brandie has fully stepped up to tackle this daunting challenge. I think Brandie misses and needs her own time, which she struggles to find in her busy day. When she can get the time, she tries to make the most of it.
Brandie: I did choose to give up my job. I could have stayed in DC with my son, alone, trying to do it all. I’ll be honest – I just couldn’t bear the thought of doing it. I had had one heck of a successful career, from military officer in the AF to DoD civilian. I was used to working, being independent, not relying on anything or anyone. That just wasn’t going to work being alone with a 1 year old. We had no family in or near DC. We had friends, but they too were busy in life and I didn’t want to burden them as well. We decided to make the best of the situation, so I took what I like to call, a sabbatical. Not in the true sense, but I decided this was a great opportunity to reconnect with friends and family.
Being so far from family up until now, our son had a few trips to the grandparents but didn’t get to spend any significant time with them. Now, we spend lots of time with all the grandparents. For the first time, family and friends have become the priority over work. Ryan’s deployment has reminded me what’s important and we’re so very thankful we had to opportunity to slow down and really enjoy life with our loved ones. So, while it is still a sacrifice for me not to work (it’s all I’ve ever known) and every day is a challenge in self motivation and project accomplishment, I’m able to spend so much time with our little boy, learning all his nuances, and just plain bonding with him. No daycare, just me and him. I can only hope Ryan has this opportunity when he returns to the states.
5) Final question: The military imposes a lot of unique challenges on a marriage – long separations, deployments to dangerous areas, uncertainty about where you will go next, last minute changes, an inability to discuss what you do at work in some cases – what about your spouse makes all of those challenges worth it?
Brandie: That’s easy, Ryan makes me a better me! Even after our first date, and definitely after our first week together, I couldn’t imagine life without him. He’s knows when to push, prod and remind me of the things I want, need and love. When life gets crazy, he helps to balance, keep in perspective life.
Ryan: Her cute cold feet that always need warming! Her sense of adventure and ability to take each day in stride that allows me to stay strong and not fear the life that I am missing back home.
Before we embarked on our journey, we sat down and thought about the challenges that we would encounter and have to overcome to be happy over the long haul and we developed short, middle and long term goals. We both decided the sacrifices involved in this deployment were relatively minor in the long run, even though we know that it can seem insurmountable now. Knowing that I can return from this deployment, and hopefully move on to a great apex tour before I retire so we start the next act of our life together also helps.
Brandie: Life is what you make it, especially the military! There are so many cons but there are pros as well. Besides, where else can you travel, move often, experience new things, learn how to manage stress because something always goes not as planned or expected and, ultimately, learn how to enjoy what you have, when you have it because things change so often?
The military is not all roses, but Ryan and I chose to twist the awful into an acceptable, the bad into good, and the good into fantastic. We could choose to focus on all that is not right because of the military, but that wouldn’t help either of us. Instead, we look at the military as what brought us together. We’re married, have a son, and we love the life we have together.
© 2014, Sarah Maples. All rights reserved.