ARLINGTON, Va.— For Silke Hagee, it’s bravery she sees each time she looks at a tearful young wife whose Marine husband deploys.
She’s proud, yet her heart breaks.
She has consoled that anguished 19-year-old woman married a mere three weeks, all the while marveling at the young wife’s fortitude, Hagee recounted during a recent interview.
And she remembers.
Each time, Silke Hagee, wife of new commandant Gen. Michael Hagee, catches a glimpse of herself in the tears of that frightened newlywed.
The couple has endured at least two long-term separations in their 33-year marriage — and both because of war.
She coped the one way she knew how.
“I just cried,” she said. “I tried very hard on the way to the airport to still be composed, but basically I just cried.”
The hard years
It was a bit of a fairy-tale first encounter between Silke (pronounced Silk-ah) Boie and Michael Hagee.
The two met at an embassy ball on a March evening in 1968.
Her father, German Air Force Brig. Gen. Werner Boie, was the defense attaché at the German embassy in Washington. Her future husband was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy who had a keen interest in Germany.
The two went on a few dates. Then he graduated and moved to California; but visited that Labor Day weekend. Her father’s tour ended, the family then moved to Germany. Mike Hagee made a visit there for two weeks that December.
“And that’s about it,” she mused. “This is 1968. I could not move to California and not be married to him. That would have been absolutely impossible for my parents, for me, to do that. So, it was either be separated or be married — so we got married. If you put all the dates together just in a row, we probably knew each other probably three to four weeks.”
Then her husband of nine months shipped off to Vietnam.
No e-mails back then. No way to phone an “I miss you.”
To occupy her time, she went back to college to get a degree in education, but didn’t enter the workforce until her youngest child was 5 years old.
At the time, she still was not a naturalized U.S. citizen and the public school system would not hire her.
“So I was pants inspector number, oh, I can’t remember the number. But you know, the one who inspected the seams and put the little number in there. It was a tough job,” she laughed.
And she’s held odd jobs along the way.
“You name it, I’ve done it. I’ve worked in insurance, I’ve worked in a pension plan consulting company, and my last job was actually with a Germany machine tool company and I worked for the subsidiary [in the States]. I did different jobs. I was spare parts manager for a while and then I became executive assistant.
“And … I’ve been a housewife. I have worked in between, but my major mission in my life was always to support my husband. Today a lot more wives work and have careers and have to juggle all that. But I think that is where our support systems come in and can help out a lot.”
Hagee, 54, said she’s humbled by the “awesome” responsibility of being first lady of the Marine Corps. She has yet to detail the goals that will define her tenure, but plans to promote volunteer programs and tackle quality-of-life issues.
One includes the Corps’ push of a program called Public Private Venture, a partnership between the military and a private company that will build, revitalize, repair and own housing units on land owned by the military.
“When we first arrived at Camp Pendleton … we had a tour of the housing and we saw some of the really old stuff and, I mean, it hurts you. It really hurts you. And these houses still exist today and still are being inhabited. Windows you could not see through, there was condensation between the windows and you can’t see out. And the floors, 10 different kinds of linoleum.
“I personally have a feeling, and there is no proof in this, I even feel spousal abuse could go down. If the spouse is in an environment during the day where she feels comfortable then she can cope with whatever is going on during the day and she won’t overload him when he gets home.
“When he gets home, he’s had a tough day at work and he comes home to a crummy house and his wife is depressed because Johnny has been eating the linoleum which is coming loose and maybe yells at him ‘What are you doing in the Marine Corps?’ and he yells at her back, and this is how it starts.”
There’s no proof, she reiterates. But she has a feeling.
And she plans to fret over the ones who aren’t Marines at all.
“Another area I’d like to concentrate on, I mean all the little programs will get attention, but education for the military child is very dear to me. … There are still a lot of problems out there, like the military child transferring from one state to another, graduation requirements are different, the course offerings are different, varsity sports is a problem. A quarterback from somewhere goes as a senior somewhere else and they aren’t on the varsity team and his is in no man’s land.”
It’s a bit personal for her. The Hagees’ two children, now grown, experienced the woes that accompany the military lifestyle.
A lack of educational opportunities for their daughter, Stephanie, kept Hagee in Annapolis in 1991, while her husband trekked across the country to assume leadership of the Corps’ 1th Marine Expeditionary Unit — the second long-term separation.
“He was gone a total of 13 months, and nine out of those months, we were in the middle of a war, so he was deployed.”
Today, while the general is not deployed, he might as well be, she joked.
The demands on her husband mean the two share little alone time.
In the two weeks following the Jan. 13 change of command ceremony, the two dined alone maybe four times, she said.
And those times were because they’re new to the Washington circles, she joked.
“We’re not quite that known yet. We’re not on people’s lists yet.”
Following an evening of hobnobbing, the two arrived home after 11 p.m.
“He jumped right on the computer, said ‘I’ve got to check in.’ I just went to bed,” she said, smiling and casually tossing her hands in the air.
When she recently left the families of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Camp Pendleton, Calif., for her new life in Washington, she did so with a message characteristic of her warm and inviting personality.
“When I left the MEF, I told my wives, and they were my wives, my families, I told them ‘yes, I’ll be living in a different house, a bigger house, but that just means I’ll have more space for you.’”
She’s always preached an open-door policy with Marine families, and being the commandant’s wife won’t change that, she promised.
Silke grew up poor in postwar Germany, but her close family ties made her “very lucky,” she said.
“We didn’t own anything, material things. This is right after the war. I had one dress for Sundays,” she laughed.
She was born in Munich and lived there for 10 years before moving to the Cologne area.
For a few years during her childhood, she gave up playing the piano because her parents wanted her to focus on studies. “When I was 13, I was doing well enough in school that they said, ‘OK, if you want to do piano again, that’s fine.’”
Her music teacher had a different instrument in mind.
“She said ‘Oh, we have a school cello. Why don’t you try that?’ It was a, literally, plywood cello.”
Her now brother-in-law played for her a cello concerto by renowned French cellist Pierre Fournier.
“I still remember it, on a record … and I said ‘Wow, that’s beautiful.’ Then of course, I grabbed the school cello and it didn’t sound quite like that.”
She embraced the idea of playing with others in orchestras and chamber groups.
“And so I sort of dropped the piano because this way, I could be with other people, and it’s been fantastic during Mike’s career to have that cello part because it keeps me in touch with the civilian world. I’ve always tried to be in some kind of group, whether it was an orchestra or chamber group, or something. I’ve always tried to do something. And I’m an amateur, but I love it!”
Staying in love
“Let each other live,” she says.
“First of all, I think you have to allow your partner to do his or her own thing. I think that’s very, very important. If my husband had always told me what to do, it wouldn’t have worked, and vice versa.”
It’s about give and take — equally.
“For example, with the cello, we had our children and I still wanted to do this and he would come home at night and he would be tired and I would want to go play music. And he was so good about it. He told me ‘OK, Tuesday nights … you go for it. And whatever we have Tuesday nights … if we had social obligations, if it’s Tuesday nights, we’ll just regrets. That’s your night.”
And now, another war looms on the horizon, and this time, her husband leads the service’s 220,000 active and reserve Marines.
Will she again have to work to compose herself at the airport? Will she see bravery in her own tears? How will she cope?
“I’ve changed a little bit over the years, of course, you grow up at little bit.”
“I still cry.”