Warrior Wife-ing & A Weekend With Heather

Being a military spouse can be uncomfortable, for lack of a better word.  You essentially squeeze into a small room of marriage with your spouse and see it’s already occupied by a large OD green elephant that’s going to be sitting on you the entire time you’re in the room. The elephant doesn’t care about you, it cares about getting a job done. While I respect that, it’s still an adjustment.  An in-your-face, step aside Ma’am, adjustment.

You get the bright spots, like homecomings, dressing up for balls, and having friends all over the world. But you also get the not-so-bright spots that no one ever preps or tells you about like PTSD, depression, loss, abuse, etc. The façade of the un-affected, chippy military spouse quickly dissipated for me as I found realness and strength in the people who faced these challenges head on. No fixing of the makeup or adjusting of pearls. Just tears and a will to fight for what you want–a happily ever after a hard-fought war.

Being no stranger to mean girls and their mentalities (they exist even in adulthood), I sought trusted advice from Ryan’s old roommate’s wife when they were stationed with us at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The military spouse community was one I always felt relatively new to, so back when Ryan was still active duty, my wide-eyed rookie self felt like seeking out mentors. I’ve been fortunate to get along with almost all his Army buddies and their spouses, so I knew I couldn’t go wrong with this particular Mrs. She told me about Her War Her Voice, which was a Facebook group that was a healthy sounding board for military spouses going through all sorts of situations. It had advice to not only help you understand your unique marriage, but to also understand yourself.

This connected me with HWHV’s founders Melissa and Chris. And long story short, I was invited to a retreat in Montana for spouses in 2012 that changed my life. It was a refreshing experience I got a lot out of, including women who I will always consider my sisters.

One sister, in particular, was Heather. While I was looking forward to meeting her at the retreat in May 2012, Heather’s husband Joseph was KIA in Afghanistan a month before. She understandably passed on the retreat to tend to her loss at home. My heart ached for a woman I had never even met, but longed to in order to remind her that she wasn’t alone.

Fast forward almost two years later, our retreat group never lost touch with one another, especially Heather. She was there with us in Montana in spirit and we were with her in San Diego in spirit. As she travels the country, she has been getting to meet most of our group one by one. Thankfully, she made it up to Seattle for my turn to meet her. It didn’t feel like I was meeting her for the first time. The funny thing about social media is that even though technology and distance separate two people, you can still get to know everything about them prior to a face-to-face encounter. Heather was like an old friend.

We had our fair share of laughs and a few tears, but it was mainly a fulfilling weekend of life lessons from a woman who is the epitome of the warrior that is in each and every one of us. My favorite part of our weekend was getting to hear stories about Joseph and what Heather’s marriage to him and the Marine Corps meant to her then and what it means to her now as she moves on with his memory.

Out of the many amazing goals Heather has in life, one is to make sure Joseph is never forgotten. To accomplish this, she had metal bracelets made that say the following:

1981-2012 — USMC –Afghanistan
So That Others May Live – EOD

Anyone can buy and wear these by going to this site: http://www.joseph-fankhauser.com/

The condition with this bracelet is to either wear it or drop it off somewhere in the world. For example, Heather traveled to Australia recently and dropped a bracelet off at the Great Barrier Reef. Friends of Heather and Joseph take photos of the bracelet at concerts, football games, and even the Boston Marathon. They share the photos with the people who miss him and pass on his memory to many more.

Heather left a piece of Joseph here with us in Washington. We dropped off a bracelet in the Puget Sound off the Kingston/Edmonds ferry on a beautiful Saturday morning.


She said Joseph always sang “I’m on a Boat” by The Lonely Island and T-Pain and we hilariously kept singing it on our way up to the deck. What a fitting spot to leave a little memory of this funny guy. Ryan was also given a bracelet to wear and we look forward to finding a new spot in this world for Joseph’s memory to stay.

I never pictured being a widow, but it could have happened while Ryan was deployed.  Ignoring it was hard with the reality looking at me in the face every time we said “see you later.” Meeting Heather gave a face to the kind of unthinkable grief that spouses fear, yet she represents the kind of resilience that can’t be taught or trained. It’s inherent, natural and deep inside a warrior’s soul.

Loss helps put things in perspective today, at this moment, to seize what you have and create good memories. This weekend with Heather was a good memory that I will be forever thankful for and I love that she is part of our lives.

Ryan seeing off Heather at the airport. It was so awesome to introduce the two.

Support, love, and honesty. I learned so much as an Army wife but even more now as I stay in touch with the woman who taught me that our unique marriages carry so many more lessons that any of us ever anticipated.

Fight for your marriage.
Fight for what you want.
Fight for yourself. Even with the elephant in the room.

Rest in peace, SSgt Fankhauser!