For three of my four years at UVA, I dated my future husband, Greg, who was then a midshipman at the Naval Academy. Despite this distance and military obligations—which often allowed us to see each other once a month—many weekends were spent making the three-hour drive between Annapolis and Charlottesville, allowing me to taste the military academy lifestyle and Greg to enjoy a “real” college experience.

Louisa Gehring and her husband, Greg

After our graduation in May 2007, Greg entered The Basic School in Quantico for training, and I headed to Richmond for a job at Capital One. At long last, over a bottle of Mr. Jefferson’s wine at Jefferson Vineyards that September, Greg proposed. In March 2008, we were married in Annapolis at the Naval Academy—just feet from where he had first asked me on a date. Suddenly, the long distance phone calls and emails seemed to be a thing of the past, and I was officially welcomed to the Marine Corps.

Life as a Marine wife proved to be challenging from the start. Weeks before our wedding, Greg discovered that he would report to his first duty station in May—in 29 Palms, Calif. While the prospect of moving to the West Coast sounded romantic, we soon discovered why this base had gained a reputation of being the worst base in the Marine Corps. Situated in the Mojave Desert, three hours from Los Angeles and an hour from Palm Springs, 29 Palms offered no suitable career transition from Capital One, and certainly offered no UVA alumni club. The nearest Target was an hour and a half away, and the fanciest restaurant in town was the Applebee’s.

The landscape of 29 Palms, Calif.

The first six months in 29 Palms were filled with tears, frustration and disbelief that we had to live there for three years. Gone were the soothing crickets and sultry Virginia summer nights sitting on the front porch, watching fireflies light up. In our first summer, we experienced regular 110 degree temperatures, a tarantula on our front door, a black widow in our garage and the howling of coyote packs keeping us up at night. Unlike in Virginia, where my family lived a short drive away, visiting our nearest relatives in California required a two-hour flight. After six months of searching, I finally found a job at the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism. This provided a short respite from my desperation to leave the desert, but also required a daily 45-minute commute, with little flexibility to adjust to Greg’s ever-changing schedule.

Eight months into my job as a marketing manager, I discovered I was pregnant. Not so conveniently, this news arrived at the same time Greg learned he would be deployed to Helmand Province in Afghanistan for seven months—and would depart two weeks before my due date. I was devastated, but like all military wives, I knew that I had no choice but to keep a stiff upper lip and forge ahead. I also made the decision to leave my job so that I could focus on my short-term status as a “single mom.”  With the help of my mom, mother-in-law and two sisters—who lined up trips during the first month of the deployment to ensure I was covered when I went into labor—I was in good hands. When our daughter, Caroline, was born, however, I missed the feeling of watching my husband holding her for the first time, or feeling like we had reached the end of a long journey together. Instead, I called my parents and in-laws to tell them the news and ask them not to share it with anyone until Greg knew.

Life in 29 Palms, Calif.

For the next day, instead of focusing entirely on my new baby, I waited for Greg to call. Having just arrived in Afghanistan, he did not have email yet, certainly did not have a phone number, and was restricted on calling home whenever a casualty occurred and the next of kin had not yet been reached. Finally, he called. Hearing his surprise and excitement over the phone broke my heart and only made me wish he was with me even more. My sadness could only last 10 minutes because after the call ended I returned home to my new life of sleepless nights, feeding schedules and diaper changes. Instead of reaching out to my husband for advice and support, I learned to lean on other military wives who had given birth in the absence of their husbands, and who had also raised a newborn on their own. I discovered why the bonds on the home front are often just as strong as those on the front lines, and in the process, realized that my new friends made 29 Palms bearable. Before long, Caroline and I became a team, and the life of a “single mom” became all I knew. 

Greg holds his daughter for the first time

Six and a half months after Caroline’s birth, Greg returned home. I watched with wonder as he delicately held his daughter for the first time, learned how to change a diaper and nervously agreed to watch her on his own while I ran errands. While I was overjoyed for Greg to be home, the adjustment was difficult. Our dynamic was no longer that of a married couple without children; now we were a three-person family. I struggled to add Greg back into the routine I had created, and Greg struggled with his return to normalcy after seven months at war. Only after his return, I learned that 10 days after Caroline’s birth his truck hit an IED [improvised explosive device], which left him unharmed physically but gave him a new outlook on life. He was noticeably more grateful and thankful for his life, and was more cautious and wary of new surroundings. Despite his safe return, learning of this event while I was in my world of newborns frightened me—and the fear of what could have been shook me to the core.

The past year since Greg’s return has brought us back into our groove. Caroline is now 18 months old, and madly in love with her dad; six months without him seem like a drop in the bucket. We are preparing to move back East to our next duty station in North Carolina, and our crazy adventures, for the most part, seem to be over. However, as I look to re-enter what may be a more normal lifestyle, I realize how different my life has become from three years ago, when I was preparing to leave Richmond.

The Gehring family

I’ll admit it—at times, I’ve felt a bit behind my UVA peers. They have provided me endless support, but I couldn’t help but be slightly jealous of their single lives in cities or towns filled with young professionals, their exciting jobs and budding careers. As much as I’d like to slip into this lifestyle at times, I recognize that that’s not my reality, and that I am thankful for the cards I have been dealt. I decided to use my experiences and knowledge as a Marine Corps spouse to build my own career. I started Semper Finest Care Packages, a company that sells packages for loved ones to send to their deployed Marines overseas and for Marines to send to their family and friends at home. With this service, care packages are no longer a hassle, and busy military families and Marines can show each other they care.

Louisa Gehring lives in North Carolina and founded Semper Finest Care Packages.