By Alexandra Blazevich
Hallie French lies in bed at her Carrboro, N.C. apartment, her back to the pillows set up to feel as if her husband sleeps next to her. It’s six months after her marriage to Taylor Peele, and he’s deployed in Iraq.
Her cat, Max, lies at her side and purrs along with the humming of the computer as she types her honors thesis. Max lives with her most of the time and goes with her to visit her husband on the weekends he’s not deployed.
From down the hall, her roommate, Nicole Vandiford, sends her a political meme from Facebook. Simultaneously, laughter erupts from their bedrooms.
Before she falls asleep, French gets a call from her husband. The connection is rough. It’s their first phone call in weeks, and the conversation gets emotional.
When he is not deployed, Peele lives in his own apartment in Fayetteville, N.C., about ten minutes from Fort Bragg, where he works as an intelligence analyst for the United States Army. The couple has never lived together.
“She’s very independent,” French’s friend and former Navy Corpsman, Jeremy Zollars said. “She gets a lot done, and makes very good grades. She has an old-person mindset. She is very mature – she’s not the typical 23-year-old going out and getting smashed every night.”
Wife of a different life
After a simple Google search on military wives, a long list of articles like “How Military Marriage Screws Up Your Career” and “How Long Will Your Military Marriage Last?” show up. There’s a popular belief that military couples typically revolve their lives around their husband’s career. The wives cook, clean and take care of the kids, while their husband serves the country to pay the bills. Zollars said about 80 percent of his friends in the Navy were married to women with this traditional lifestyle.
French, however, falls in the latter 20 percent. For starters, she kept her own name after marriage.
“Changing my name wasn’t going to magically make me love him more,” she said. “We’ve always talked about being individual, well-paired partners – not the same person.”
While she feels that changing her name and lifestyle for her husband’s job isn’t necessary, she still supports all that he does.
“She has been nothing but supportive of my decisions throughout my military career, and that is something you can see take a serious toll on people,” Peele said.
French’s roommate has lived with her longer than her husband ever has. Because many military wives live either with their spouse on base or at home with their kids, French’s situation is unusual. She said many people are surprised to hear she has both a husband and a roommate.
French said traditional gender roles are popular in the military, but she thinks they’re old fashioned. She strives to be an individual – something that keeps her strong and independent of her husband and marriage.
“The majority of military wives stand out as very entitled, complacent, and complaining – they don’t do a whole lot, as far as work goes,” Zollars said.
French is definitely not like that – and her husband respects her for it.
“She goes to school and doesn’t complain about my work life,” he said. “She understands that I had this job before I had her and that it is very important to me, just as I understand how important her school is for her.”
French fills her time with a full load of classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, a work study at the Center for the Study of the American South and writing her 40-page honors thesis – a completely different lifestyle than the stereotypical military wife. So in comparison to other Army wives, she said she often doesn’t fit in.
When introducing herself to other military couples at a marriage retreat, French said the other women referred to themselves as wives first, then mothers and lastly their individual selves.
“All of the wives were stay-at-home-moms or sold Avon or something,” French said. “I was the only person there that even remotely fit into my category.”
When it was their turn for introductions, she asked her husband to introduce her simply as, “Hallie, my wife.”
Feeling like an outsider isn’t easy, but there is one thing Hallie has in common with many other military wives – her age.
According to the United States Department of Defense’s 2014 Demographics Profile of the Military Community, 23.5 percent of military spouses are 26 to 30 years old, proof that about one-fourth of military couples get married relatively young. A lot of military couples are even younger than this bracket, including French and Peele, but, they do not fit this stereotype entirely.
There’s a popular stigma that young military couples rush to get engaged within a few months of meeting. There’s an expectation to revolve every aspect of their lives around the military.
In basic training, the first two to four months of military training, recruits cannot reach the outside world, with the exception of letters. After graduation, they have access to phones, the internet, and resources off-base. Basic training is typically the hardest part for couples due to the lack of communication, and the pressure to get married young is felt throughout the whole military environment.
“You see a lot of people who get married young in the military for all the wrong reasons,” Peele said.
One of these reasons is for the money. A married person in the Army gets a $60,000 bonus when they finish A-school, compared to $12,000 for a single person.
Zollars said he almost married a friend from home so he could use the extra money to pay her bills. It is a very real option for those in the military, and the pressure is certainly there.
French said she did not personally feel a pressure to get married from the Army, but since the marriage, she’s been pressured by family to have kids. She said her father-in-law asked what her 5-year plan was for having kids – to which she told him to leave and ask again when he’d accept a 10-year plan.
French and Peele got engaged after a year and a half of dating. They were married on their second anniversary – the day after Christmas – a fact that would make any hopeless romantic tear up.
When her family heard news of their wedding after a short 6-month engagement period, French said they seemed more suspicious than happy for her.
“Everyone thought I was pregnant,” she said. Other family members thought she was going to drop out of school to go live with Peele at Fort Bragg.
French said she didn’t appreciate her family’s intrusive questions, but she didn’t let that change her plans.
“It sucks, but it’s also just the price I pay,” she said.
To the chapel
Soon after the engagement, the Army told Peele he was going to be deployed to Iraq. Duty was calling in less than six short months, and French was impatient.
“Our plan was to wait until I finished Carolina,” she said. “That was always our plan.”
But she just couldn’t wait to marry her best friend.
“As long as he was there with me, everything was fantastic – I was on cloud nine,” French said. “As soon as he left though, I was like ‘This is ridiculous. What are we doing?’”
When she picked up her husband from the airport after he spent a month in Texas for the Army, she told him she had a surprise. Peele said he had a feeling she was planning something when she started driving into the city, so he asked her if they were going to the courthouse to get married.
“No, we are not going to the courthouse to get married,” French told him. “What kind of woman do you think I am?”
She was driving him to get their marriage certificate. French referred to herself as the initiator in the relationship, and this action indicates why.
One week later, they were married in the mountains of North Carolina.
“We had been engaged for about six or seven months, and I knew she was the girl for me, but it scared me,” Peele said. “It was such a huge step at such a quick pace, but looking back I don’t think I would rather have done it any other way.”
While French and Peele have not had the traditional relationship, engagement or married life, they still manage to make it work. Living apart is not easy, but they have an understanding when it comes to being together while living separate lives.
When asked if he had any regrets, Peele said without hesitation, “Not a single one.”
After a few moments deep in thought, French said, “The only thing I regret is not wearing shapewear under my wedding dress.”
Edited by Paige Connelly