For love of country and each other
STOCKTON, Calif. — It was a moment that might have panicked the most stalwart Army spouse.
Jennifer Foster-Hayes was visiting with her husband, Matthew, on Skype when the sirens went off at his base in Baghdad.
A rocket attack.
"Gotta go," he said, and the screen went blank.
"I'm like, 'Wait! — Oh, he's gone,' " she remembered.
Sitting in her quiet living room that night in 2009, Foster-Hayes had one advantage other helpless husbands and wives didn't: She was in the Army, too.
"I've always considered myself lucky because I've had the training," she said. "I knew what to expect. I can't even imagine what I would have done if I had no idea what was going on."
That's the benefit of a military marriage — common understanding.
This couple knows the drawbacks, too. A yearlong separation, a baby born 9,000 miles from her father, and perhaps most difficult, the awkwardness of getting to know each other again after one spouse comes home from war a changed person.
"The odds were against us," Matthew Hayes said.
If it wasn't for the Army, they never would have met.
He grew up outside Dodge City, Kan., and didn't want to be a farmer. She was from West Sacramento and had no idea what to do with her life.
They enlisted and met at Fort Lewis, Wash.
Her strong-willed personality reminded him of his mother. He didn't have the nerve to ask for her phone number but dug it out of the unit roster, called and invited her and her daughter (from a previous marriage) out to dinner.
A month later, she accepted.
They moved in together, just in time for the unit to move out — to Iraq. She wanted to go more than he did. But she was now pregnant with a second child. Her dream to deploy ended; his reluctance to deploy intensified.
They married in a hasty ceremony at the courthouse in Olympia, Wash., 16 days before he shipped out. He stepped on the plane, and five weeks later she gave birth.
While little Madilynn learned to crawl and say "Mommy" and "Daddy," her father was dodging occasional rocket attacks. He worked 12-hour nights as an analyst, planning Army operations in the Baghdad area.
One year later, at 2 a.m. in a Fort Lewis gym crowded with happy families, he met Madilynn.
"We walked up to each other," he said. "I looked at Madilynn, she looked at me. I hugged Jennifer and Kailynn — she remembered me — but Madilynn? I didn't even feel comfortable hugging her. I hadn't really earned that right yet."
Reunited, the family moved to Stockton to be near Hayes' father and University of the Pacific, where Hayes is a business student. Foster-Hayes went to San Joaquin Delta College and now commutes to the University of San Francisco, where she studies nursing.
She has become active in the local veterans community, working with the American Legion Karl Ross Post 16 and Dignity's Alcove. She contemplates someday starting her own rehabilitation center to help veterans resume their civilian lives.
It's been a struggle, however, resuming their own lives.
He was a different person from the man she had married. He would spring up from the dinner table, momentarily alarmed that he carried no weapon. He would clean — again and again — the spotless house, for want of something to do. He was physically distant with loved ones.
"I was angry," he said. "I'm still working on it. The anxiety is getting better."
And so far, at least, they have endured where many other military couples have failed.
"Marriage is hard," Foster-Hayes said. "It's always hard for any couple. It's going to be the hardest thing anyone does. But you can't just give up because it's hard. If you do, you're going to give up on a lot of things in life.
"I want good things for my kids. I want to have a good relationship, too. We just keep working. And I think that's the most important thing."