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500 Days to Italy: Military Newlywed’s Separated Over a Year by Covid

500 Days to Italy: Military Newlywed’s Separated Over a Year by Covid

If you had told me that just a few weeks after my wedding day, I would end up stranded thousands of miles from my military husband and remain separated for 15 months in the midst of a world-wide pandemic—I would have laughed in disbelief. Fraught with 4000 miles of distance, unnecessary red tape from governmental paperwork, here is my journey to reunite with my husband.

My husband James and I met in 2018 at a beer Olympics house party game in my college town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. We began dating a few months later, shortly after I moved to Chicago, Illinois. James lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which was about 1.5 hours each way, depending on traffic. Even though I wanted desperately to move to Milwaukee, our relationship remained long-distance; we took turns visiting on the weekends up until James enlisted in the United States Army in January 2020. The story I’m about to tell is filled with much personal heartbreak, tough love, and above all, resilience. Although I am not the only one to have endured the pandemic, or experienced distressing separation in military life, every story, including mine, is unique.

Let’s begin with the week we were secretly married. James was due to leave in seven days for basic training in Georgia. We had always known we wanted to get married in the future, but now that the military was in the mix, we were faced with the choice of getting married before or after his 25 weeks of training. In the military, a couple is only guaranteed to remain together if they are married—especially when the duty station is overseas. We didn’t want to risk my being left behind in case he was stationed far away, so we quietly married at the Milwaukee Courthouse. Our plan was to keep it secret and wait until we could have a proper wedding. That secret lasted five months, once we realized what we might be facing. But let’s not jump too far into the story yet.

The days leading up to James leaving were incredibly hard. I distinctly remember the night we had to say goodbye. We were standing in his cousin’s driveway; it was late at night in February and freezing cold outside. James did his best to reassure me that everything would be fine, told me how much he loved me, and how the next six months would fly by. I watched him pull out of that driveway with tears streaming down my face, repeating, “It’ll only be six months,” as if that were my new mantra. Little did I know it would be the last time I saw my husband for a long, long time.

The first two weeks were filled with radio silence aside from James’s expected 10-second phone call letting me know he had made it safely to Georgia. I spent the first few weeks reading up on everything I could find that was army-related. I joined countless Fort Benning Facebook groups and learned the process of the new 22-week One Station Unit Training (OSUT) that had replaced the old basic training standard. James faced nine weeks of basic training and thirteen weeks of advanced individual training. I wanted to be as involved as I could and prepared for every eventuality. I wanted to know everything James would be going through and use my knowledge to talk to him about his experiences.

It was the best way I could think of to support him and stay up to date. I learned that sometimes, trainees would be allowed to call home randomly once every three weeks after a specific phase was over. The length of those phone calls was always to be determined. I also learned that I had to wait to mail him any letters until James was out of reception and assigned to a company. I remember being in the middle of writing James my first letter when I received the long-awaited phone call from him telling me he was finally out of reception and about to be shipped to his new company to begin training. I savored the sweetest ten minutes I could have ever asked for. I was so happy to start counting down the six months.

During the third week after James was gone, Covid-19 reached the United States. In that same week, I had moved from the apartment in Chicago to my uncle’s house in Virginia. Two letters from James were already waiting for me there, my first contact since that last phone call weeks before, and meant that I finally had his company address so I could mail him my letters. I had a small stack of letters, folded up and ready to send.

However, it didn’t matter because even though I had been writing to James nearly every day, trainees typically don’t receive mail for the first several weeks (a tactic used by many drill sergeants to break trainees down). So even if I wanted James to hear from me and know I wasn’t ignoring him and hadn’t forgotten him, this wouldn’t happen for at least another month.

The world locked down due to Covid-19 and everyone was suddenly isolated. Far from the traditional newlywed experience, I was now living in my uncle’s home, in a new town, starting a new job, unable to meet anyone, see family or do anything. The cold Chicago weather and the threat of a pandemic meant spending far too much of my time looking at the world through social media. I watched as so many people complained about being trapped inside with their significant other—what I would’ve given to be in their shoes with James.

As the weeks rolled on, I adjusted to my new life. Every morning I put a letter in the mailbox, then practically stalked the postman by watching from my bedroom window for him to pick up my letter and deliver my mail. I always hoped that a letter from James would be nestled somewhere inside. I wrote to James every single day until we were able to have daily contact; I sent him close to 100 letters. It felt like there wasn’t much to look forward to—so letters from him meant everything to me.

Early on, I learned that trainees can be given the privilege of what they called Family Weekend when they graduated from basic training. As the name suggests, families could come visit and spend time together for three whole days. I was absolutely thrilled at the prospect of seeing James after 11 long weeks. But as the news flooded with information about Covid-19, I began to doubt the reality of such an opportunity, as well as worrying for James.

They did their best to keep “social distance” space between trainees, but let’s face it—it’s hard to separate a group of 100+ guys, especially in Fort Benning—one of the busiest hubs training over 100,000 trainees each year. Not only was I worried about his health, the selfish part of me was worried if James would get Covid and have to be quarantined for two weeks and then have to restart training again.

On the Facebook groups, I read horror stories of that very thing happening. Six months felt long enough, and I couldn’t bear the idea of having to restart. And I wasn’t even the one in training! James’ own experience was disappointing. Covid prevented trainees from learning specific aspects of combat training and tarnished many of their experience. It felt more like a prison to them than it even was. I felt isolated, but James and the other trainees were more isolated than any of us could imagine.

My days were filled with copious amounts of official paperwork. One was my military dependent ID that also doubles as my insurance card. That was my first experience with the convoluted system the military has generated; and was a prelude to what I would experience later. Nothing will test your sanity more than the way the government processes paperwork and the attitudes of people who oversee those processes. The incalculable number of times I was shamed, yelled at, and denigrated, has left me with a permanent lack of faith in our government systems.

Visa paperwork, precious letters, rare opportunities to connect – photos by Michaela Halford

Along with army paperwork, I was busy trying to figure out how to legally change everything to my married name, all while Covid-19 was running rampant. Everything took five times as long as it was supposed to. Offices had limited staff, limited hours, or were just completely closed. It felt like a constant roundabout.

The only upside that emerged from Covid was that the drill sergeants allowed James and his company to call home once a week to check in on family and let us know they were healthy and safe. The phone could ring any day of the week at any time of the day and the call lasted anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes. It all depended on how well each platoon behaved; if anyone decided to act out, they all had their privileges taken away. But I was happy to take that chance instead of just one phone call every three weeks. I was on edge every second of every day just in case I would get a phone call. I would never have forgiven myself if I missed a call. And I made sure I never did.

After nine weeks, James completed the basic training portion of OSUT. Sadly, due to Covid, no one was allowed to attend the ceremony as is usually the tradition. His next step was Advanced Individual Training (AIT) which honed the specific skillset each trainee was to develop. At this point, the company was allowed a little more freedom. Normally, they would receive passes to leave their barracks and check out the base a little bit, but because of Covid, this wasn’t allowed. They were trapped inside their barracks, unable to step even a foot too far outside. However, they were instead able to have their phones on the weekends to keep a balance of sanity. Every Sunday, I would facetime James and have “coffee with the boys,” which entailed James drinking contraband MRE coffee with some of his platoon bunkmates. It was my favorite way to feel involved from hundreds of miles away.

AIT is where trainees begin to learn where they will be stationed after OSUT. Because James’ MOS was 11B airborne (airborne infantry) there were three typical locations we might be sent: North Carolina, Alaska, and Italy. It wasn’t until airborne school that he received hard orders for Italy for a three-year tour. After James graduated AIT, thus completing the 22-week OSUT course, he had to quarantine for two weeks in the field before moving on to airborne school.

Once again, families were unable to attend the graduation ceremony and watch them receive the title of soldier. But that was okay because I was still holding on strong to the idea that we would reunite right after airborne school. James’ contract allowed two weeks of hometown recruiting, which gave him the ability to come back home to Wisconsin for two weeks before being sent off to our future duty station. That meant I would not only get to visit him but we could make some plans to move our household goods as well as move me to our new home. Or so I thought. But life has a surprising way of crushing everything you had hoped for.

Airborne school is approximately three weeks long and consists of training techniques of how to jump out of airplanes properly and safely. The amount of worry I had for James was through the roof. Especially when during a jump he watched someone land on their back and break it. While he was busy training to jump out of what I hoped were perfectly safe airplanes, I spent my time frantically researching what it would take to move with James to Italy. The list was huge, urgent, and complicated. Before I could even begin the process, we needed his orders and I needed my name to be listed on them. Once we had that, I could apply for the exceptional family member program (EFMP) which would put me in for command sponsorship. If and when command sponsorship was approved, I could apply for my military no-fee passport. Once that arrived, I could then apply for my Italian visa. Needless to say, I was panicking.

James received his hard orders for Italy with about a week left of airborne school. However, his orders didn’t list my name, but instead listed approval for dependents. I learned about specific names needing to listed during an appointment at a local army base, when I was told with indifference, “We can’t proceed until the exact name is on the order. Next in line.” Later, I discovered had they left out incredibly important information that would set us back weeks. As we tried to figure out how to change the name, no one seemed to know the answer. Eventually, someone at Fort Benning told us that James’ receiving unit, the 173rd, would have to change it. If only we knew what that would mean for us.

James was never able to come home for hometown recruiting. Covid caused all recruiting events to be canceled, thus creating zero need for James to fulfill that part of his contract. Instead, they sent James directly from Georgia to Italy without once seeing his wife or his family. I was left behind in the States. James arrived in Italy mid-September of 2020. He had to be quarantined for two weeks upon arrival. Before he could report to his unit, he also had to go through inprocessing. Typically, that should only take a couple days, tops. But because of Covid, the process took two months.

He finally was able to report to his unit mid-November. If you aren’t familiar with the military, there is a process when it comes to asking questions or for favors. If you’re new, forget about it. You have to establish yourself there and keep your head low. You have to work your way up to asking through the chain of command. To get the answers you need you must ask the person you directly report to and then they will ask their superiors and so on and so forth. By the time James was able to get any guidance on what we needed to do, he had to go for training in Germany for two weeks. When he got back there wasn’t enough time to get anything done before the start of long weekends off, federal holidays and leave time. We all know how much the government loves their federal holidays. It felt impossible to make headway. While I waited from September to December, I prepared all my yearly medical checkups and began collecting all my medical history from the last 5 years. I wanted to be ready to submit for EFMP when the time came.

Sadly, while James was away, one of his family members passed. We had hoped he could come home for a celebration of life. In reality, the only way it could happen was during his leave time. Even that was close to impossible with the circumstances at the time. His leave time wasn’t until January but unfortunately for the soldiers in Italy, leaving for their vacation wasn’t an option. Covid in Italy was still high and the country was still heavily locked down and restricted.

Miraculously, after a lot of negotiating, James was able to come home for the first time in a year. I remember pacing at the airport international wing, nervously waiting for him to walk through the doors. It felt surreal to be able to hug and touch him after spending a year communicating only by phone. The best part was that it felt like we had never missed a day. Everything felt exactly as it should. James was home for two weeks, and let me tell you, it was over in a blink of an eye. This time when we said our goodbyes, we told each other “see you again soon”. Deep down, neither of us had any idea when that would be, but we hoped for the best.

In February, I submitted my medical records for review in the EFMP process. They look at medical records to make sure that Italy is equipped to handle whatever medical needs a person requires. In most cases, there isn’t a problem but the possibility of being denied was horrifying. EFMP saw in my medical history that I have struggled with anxiety and depression. Because of that I was required to have my doctor fill out a form to discuss those diagnoses further. I knew this could happen, but I had sincerely hoped it wouldn’t. And of course, it just added more time to the waitlist and prolonged my ability to submit everything. Time was dragging on at a snail’s pace. Days felt like weeks and weeks felt like months. I was living in limbo, just frozen in time, waiting to live my life.

Once the paperwork has been submitted by EFMP, Command has a month to approve or deny sponsorship. And of course, it took the entire month to hear back for approval. As per usual, once one thing was processed, James was always asked to fill out more paperwork for the next thing we had to do. This time it was for the actual command sponsorship memo that would then be the replacement for my name missing from his original orders. This piece of paper can also take up to a month max, but, it typically takes 1-2 weeks at most. Once again, with our luck, it took almost a month. However, this was due to a worker misplacing our paperwork and neglecting to tell anyone about it. It wasn’t corrected until James had his leadership involved.

Photos by Michaela Halford

Finally, after waiting half a year I was able to apply for my no-fee passport. Surprise, surprise – we hit another snag! I had no faith in the competence of the army base closest to where I was living—it’s the base that sent me away with inaccurate information. For example, earlier in the previous year that base was reluctant to issue my dependent military ID because James was not present. They refused to believe I had documents that allowed me to get it without him (a very basic well-known form) as well as a power of attorney for good measure. They never ever answered their phone. At one time, I had called frequently for three months straight to ask simple questions and they answered only three times. It’s no surprise they had a reputation for horrible service. I didn’t trust them to send my visa to the right Italian consulate.

No way would I put such important paperwork as the passport into their hands. I did my research and chose a base that was out of the Italian DC embassy jurisdiction in Virginia and Maryland, and instead was closer to the Philadelphia consulate, which was processing visas faster at that time. I wasn’t about to waste any more time if I could help it. Typically, it’s best to apply for your passport at the same place you apply for your visa, so I decided to drive three hours round trip to Maryland. The passport can take four to six weeks depending on the amount of applicants. Thankfully, mine came back in about three and a half weeks. It was the first really positive thing to happen in a long time.

When the passport was ready to be picked up, I called to make an appointment the same day to apply for my Italian visa. I was told you cannot do same day appointments and to reschedule for two weeks later because I must provide a photocopy of the data page that has my signature in the passport. But I cannot sign until I pick up the passport and the office doesn’t provide a color photocopier. I insisted she make the appointment the same day I picked up my passport.

Reluctantly, she did and a week later I drove to Maryland, picked up my passport, carried my uncle’s printer to the Starbucks inside of the Post Exchange on base and photocopied my passport. Imagine watching a five-foot young lady walking through what can only be described as a miniature mall, carrying a backpack and very large printer in her arms. The looks everyone gave me were absolutely priceless (don’t worry, I asked the barista for permission first). I went back an hour later for my appointment, photocopy in hand, and applied for my visa. Even that was a difficult task because I was met with resistance from the passport agent who argued with me about my application. Nothing is ever simple.

The visa can take up to four weeks to return. Thankfully, it came back about three weeks later. Adding to the ecstasy of picking the visa up, James came home for leave again later that same week. This time, after his two short weeks were up and we were saying goodbye at the airport, “see you soon” actually had an honest ring to it. I moved to Italy about a week and a half later.

Photo of travel, plane, italy and reuniting
Italy bound; a seven hour flight, the street of Vicenza, and together at last – photos Michaela Halford

One and a half years later and we finally were reunited again for good. We missed twelve major holidays, two birthdays, our anniversaries, and so many special achievements in each other’s lives. This reunion was everything I had dreamed of. No longer did I have to see friends, family, and strangers share their adventures with their significant others while I sat longing to share even a simple meal with James. No longer did I have to stare at the same old photos of us from months or years before. No longer did we have to live separate lives in tandem.

Most spouses have the ability to move together, but because of several factors, not to mention a global pandemic, we were dealt a difficult hand. And sadly, I have met others who also had to wait over a year to be reunited with their spouses. Delays always happened occasionally, but Covid has made it a lot more common.

The entire process from the day James first left was a struggle and I met so much resistance along the way. I haven’t even mentioned all the difficulties James faced on his end. I learned so many important lessons along my journey and came out so much stronger on the other side. There were days I felt hopeless, like I was trapped forever, and thought this day would never come. But here I am now, ready to plan my long overdue wedding and enjoy beautiful Italy with my most treasured person.

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Michaela Halford is a photographer finds artistic inspiration through the emotive medium of color film. Her personal work is conceptual and moody while her commercial side enjoys capturing vibrant food. Once Midwest-based, she is now located in Italy. Follow her on Instagram at @michaelafaass and her website:  www.mfaass.com to see work and her upcoming European adventures. 

 

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