At Christmas, a young military couple understands the meaning of 'for better or for worse'
Two weeks before Christmas last year, Fort Bragg Sgt. Mike Salmon called to check on his wife in Fayetteville.
On the other end of the line, Crystal Salmon was inconsolable. Honey, she told her husband through sobs, I was assaulted.
Mike Salmon nearly lost it. He asked for and received an emergency leave to return home to comfort his young wife.
"I couldn't even function," said Mike Salmon, a 25-year-old supervisor of an Apache helicopter maintenance section. "There was really nothing I could do to keep my head in the game."
The leave lasted less than three weeks. On Christmas Eve, Salmon found himself on a plane heading back to Afghanistan. He had no choice. Army policy is Army policy. He spent Christmas Day eating sushi in an airport in the Netherlands.
The assault was the first in a string of ugly happenstance for the newlyweds.
Three months later, Crystal Salmon said, she lost the baby she had been carrying. About a week after that, she said, her car's transmission blew up as she drove alone on a desolate stretch of South Carolina blacktop.
It's often said that the first year of marriage is the hardest. The adage is even more apt for a military couple.
During deployments, the soldier is thousands of miles away; the spouse home alone, often with no support system. So many things that could go wrong. So many things that so often do.
Newly released figures from the Pentagon show that the military divorce rate is at an all-time high, with 30,000 marriages ending in fiscal 2011. The Army's divorce rate of 3.7percent is now slightly higher than the civilian rate.
At the outset of her problems, Crystal Salmon thought she might become another statistic for the military divorce pile.
But the Salmons defied the odds. The hardships they endured, they said, only made their marriage stronger.
"It was a really positive outlook that came out of the entire situation," said Crystal Salmon, who is a year younger than her husband.
Mike Salmon and Crystal Comolli met in high school in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area.
He was the popular one, a wrestler with an outgoing personality who liked to party and play the guitar.
She was the self-professed nerd, the girl with few close friends whose world revolved around family, animals and the ROTC.
They had a brief fling in high school, but Mike joined the Army after graduating in 2005 to do what he loved - maintaining things that fly - and Crystal stayed behind to tend to the animals at Tampa Bay's Busch Gardens.
They had little contact in the intervening years, other than a Facebook comment or two.
But after a yearlong deployment in 2010, Mike returned to Tampa Bay on leave to visit family and friends. While there, he and his friends decided to gather at a bar, and he asked Crystal through Facebook to join them.
Mike never expected her to show up, and she wasn't sold on the idea, either. But as he sat outside the bar, he watched her stroll across the parking lot. He hung up the phone on the person he had been talking to and hurried to greet her.
They have been together ever since. Back then, they often found themselves sharing cramped quarters with friends in Fayetteville.
That began to change on May 8, 2011, when the couple took their dog, an Aussie mix named Dub, for a walk along a hiking trail. They stopped at an overlook, and Crystal noticed a piece of paper poking out of Dub's harness.
She bent to remove it, thinking it was trash, until she read the inscription:
"I want Mike to be my daddy," it read. Dub had signed the note with his paw.
Crystal didn't get it at first, until Mike bent down on one knee and made his pitch.
There's something about a lot of military couples. They don't like to waste time.
Two days after Mike proposed, the couple went to the Cumberland County Magistrate's Office and became husband and wife. Afterward, they celebrated at McDonald's with two friends who witnessed the marriage.
Mike laughs at the memory. The Salmons know it was an atypical wedding, but they hope to have the real deal sometime in the future.
But first they want to save some money and have a baby. And some furniture for the new house sure would be nice.
The Salmons bought the house in January, a spiffy two-story in one of those new subdivisions near Fort Bragg where everything is painted in shades of beige.
Shortly afterward, Crystal used Skype to contact her husband in Afghanistan. During their conversation, she held up a pregnancy test strip. A blue test strip, to be precise.
"I was thrilled," Mike said. "I was going to be a father."
But life would soon punch the Salmons again.
The baby seemed to be doing fine after nine weeks. But then a series of ultrasounds failed to detect a heartbeat, and doctors recommended that Crystal undergo a medical miscarriage.
No, she told the doctors, not until the next week, when her husband had returned home on R&R.
Shortly after his arrival, Crystal said, she swallowed a pill that caused the miscarriage. Two days later, she became a foster pet owner, driving 90 miles to pick up a dog that had been abandoned. Fostering pets helped Crystal deal with the emotional trauma, which didn't stop after the miscarriage.
When his two weeks of R&R ended, Mike left for Atlanta, where he would stay for a day before catching yet another plane back to Afghanistan.
Crystal didn't think twice. She hopped in her car and drove to Atlanta to spend one last night with her husband.
On her return home, the transmission blew up on that desolate stretch of South Carolina highway. Crystal called Mike, who had boarded the plane moments before. She told him what had happened, just before a stewardess told him to turn off his phone.
There was nothing Mike could do. His bride was in the middle of nowhere, alone on the side of a road. He would later learn that she spent the night in a creepy motel with an entrance door that wouldn't fully close.
Mike decided it wasn't worth the money to have the car fixed, so he bought her a new one, and - what the heck - a truck for himself, too.
Two weeks before Christmas, and the stubby Christmas tree still stands unadorned in the Salmons' living room, which is nearly as empty as the tree itself.
A movie poster of the "Hunger Games" adorns one wall. Crystal Salmon is obsessed with the trilogy. She can identify with Katniss' close relationship with her fictional sister, Prim.
Crystal has a sister about the same age.
She loves the movie largely because she can relate to Katniss' need to protect those around her no matter the consequence.
When Mike returned from Afghanistan in September, she wanted to surprise him with a private viewing of the movie.
The theater said no, it would only show it to a hundred or more people. Crystal offered to buy the 98 empty seats - she meant it, too - but again the theater declined.
To say that Crystal is impetuous would be a mild understatement. She wears her jet-black hair in bangs, a gold ring protruding from her nose. She says she has no intention of changing, of becoming a typical wife.
She clings to the belief that family comes first, and she drives home to Florida every couple of months to be with her sister and other relatives.
Mike is the practical one. "The Fixer," Crystal calls him. When something goes wrong, Mike steps in to fix the problem in a logical way.
Crystal also calls Mike "The Motivator." He pushes his wife to go back to college and get a degree. She's taking online courses now but hopes to return to college to earn a degree in animal psychology or a related field.
It's a puzzling dichotomy, this union of husband and wife. But it not only seems to be working, the bonds seem to be getting stronger.
Mike said he realizes - even more since the assault - that Crystal has been making most of the sacrifices.
He's the one who pulled her away from her family, who may have to return to a war zone, who may be required to move to another Army post.
It's all part of being an Army wife, for better or worse.
Almost without fail, many of those wives will say, the biggest problems arise when the husband is away.
But for this couple, at least, hardship has served to make the heart grow fonder.
"For that and only that, I am very content," Mike said. "It is because of what happened."