By Alexandra Blazevich
Permission to go ashore.
After driving 11 hours to Pensacola, Fla. and waiting two hours in the Naval Air Station’s Welcome and Visitors Center, where the office needed to see my license, registration and conduct a background check, those two words made my heart sing.
This was real.
It was happening.
John Bradford was free.
Free for the next six hours of liberty, that was. We would go through a similar process to bring him back that night.
After sleeping through my 4:45 and 5 a.m. alarms, my 5:15 alarm woke me up to a dark and lonely room. The drool on the side of my cheek didn’t even have time to dry before I got up and walked to the bathroom. The sandy floor of the hotel room stuck to my feet as I made my way.
I doused my face in cold water to wake myself up. It did nothing to help the fact that it was only five hours since getting back from dropping my boyfriend off at the base the night before. My eyes were bloodshot and tired from the previous day. I got dressed and made myself look as nice as I could for how early it was, and then walked down to my car in the garage below the hotel.
When I rolled up to the gate 30 minutes later, the sun was just coming up. I turned off the music I had blasting to keep me awake and took out my driver’s license. I made sure my hard-earned visitor’s pass was visible on the dashboard and dimmed my headlights.
“Goooooood morning!” the man said, signaling me to drive forward.
Men and women on base aren’t allowed to have caffeine while working, so I was not expecting such an excited greeting at 6 a.m.
“Good morning,” I said a little less enthusiastically.
“What are you doing here so early?” he asked while he verified my license.
“I’m here to pick up my boyfriend,” I said, to justify.
“Man, he better buy you a good breakfast,” he responded.
Too bad I had already bought him donuts and a chai latte –his favorites.
“That’s a little backwards, isn’t it?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, laughing. “It is.”
He signaled me to drive through the gate and told me to have a good day. It was the first full day I got to spend with John in months, so I knew it would be.
John and I started dating two months before he knew he’d be leaving for boot camp. We certainly didn’t make the decision on a whim – we even wrote out a pros and cons list to reference. We knew we wouldn’t be able to see each other often as a long-distance military couple. If I want to see him, I have to travel to wherever he is. He won’t be able to take leave until summer 2017, almost a year after the start of our relationship.
For every month of service, military members earn two and a half days of leave, which begins adding up in boot camp. Leave is great, but it can’t make up for the weekends, birthdays, anniversaries, and small victories they miss while they’re gone –one of the sacrifices of a military relationship.
As I drove onto base, my heart began beating out of my chest. The day I had been waiting for since January was finally here. I got to see him for a whole 16 hours that day – more than I’d seen him, in total, on my last visit for his boot camp graduation.
After parking in the visitor lot, I made my way to the barracks he had shown me the day before. I stuck out even more than I thought I would in my jean shorts, tank top and UNC hat. Everyone else around me looked the same – from their uniforms to their glasses and haircuts.
When I opened the door to the barracks, I gave a polite smile and said a “good morning” to the man on duty, who John told me was named Dafun. On base, everyone goes by their last name. It wasn’t until I asked John his roommates’ first names that he realized he didn’t know them. John told me Dafun was taking his place while he was on weekend liberty. On our way out, John saluted him and I gave the biggest smile I could to thank him for his service.
We drove to a restaurant while John ate his donuts, where he did, in fact, buy me breakfast.
After breakfast we drove to the beach, where I planned to lay out all day and catch up on sleep, but John had other plans. Within five minutes of setting out his towel, he was running toward the water for a swim in the numbingly cold water, dog tags swinging to and fro around his neck.
“I hope he’s a good swimmer,” said a woman who was there with her family.
He was the only one in the water.
“He’s actually training to be an air rescue swimmer with the Navy,” I told her proudly.
“I guess he has to get used to this somehow,” she said.
My mind flashed back to when John and I watched the movie, “The Guardian” before he left for boot camp. The main character’s job was the same as John’s: an air rescue swimmer in the U.S. Navy.
When he came out of the water twenty minutes later, the woman thanked him for his service–something he said he hears whenever he’s around civilians.
Later that day at a beach bar, a man noticed my hat.
“You’ve got the wrong blue,” he said.
My boyfriend, another Duke fan, got a kick out of that.
It was like being home again before John had left for boot camp. Just like a regular afternoon out with him in Durham or Chapel Hill. I didn’t want it to end.
On the last night, I drove John back to base for the third and final time of the trip. We sat in the car in silence. I drove with one hand on the steering wheel and the other hand in his. It was 11:30 p.m., and he had to wake up at 4 a.m. At one point I looked over and realized he was asleep.
Right before midnight, I dropped him off at the barracks. We hugged and he said a simple, “See ya.” Then he walked up the stairs to his room where I wasn’t allowed to follow.
When I would see him again? In a month? Just a few weeks? I had no idea.
As I walked back to my car, it felt like part of me was suddenly missing. My phone buzzed, and I opened the message from John after passing through the gates I got to know so well over the weekend.
“I love you,” the text read.
He apologized for not being able to kiss me one more time. No public displays of affection are allowed on base.
It wasn’t until then that I started crying.
Edited by Paige Connelly