Stephanie, Royal Marine Wife.
Ribbon of Hearts.
I always think how we first met makes a funny story; I was out with friends and he was out with some fellow Marines from our home town, Grimsby. There were a fair few of them at the time even though we are six hours away from most camps! He had left his friends, very drunk, feeling hungry and had stumbled into a local takeaway pizza place. It was still quite early in the evening so my friends and I were not drunk at this point, but fancied some ‘cheesy chips’ before having more to drink. I was sat down and this random bloke (my now husband) said to me, very drunk but with complete confidence “You’re gonna be my wife one day, will you marry me?” I laughed it off and told the drunk bloke to go away at which point he grabbed my phone and rang himself with it, so he had my number. I laughed again, got my phone back and we left. I didn’t really think anything more about it until a few days later when I was back at Uni and I got this random text saying “Who is this?” I checked my call log and realised it was the random bloke from the pizza place so I replied with “Your Fiancée”. He was in France for three weeks, so we continued to text for a while until we finally got to go on our first date, and the rest as they say is history.
My first tough battle was Ollie’s second tour of Afghanistan. I didn’t know him during his first tour, but I knew he had been injured, shot in the head by a sniper, but luckily lived to tell the tale and complete his full tour. Also a good friend of ours, Rob, had died in Afghan six months before Ollie’s second tour. I was apprehensive about this tour to say the least. I didn’t really know what I had let myself in for in all honesty.
A few weeks into the tour, on a nice relaxed Sunday. I was spending the day with a girlfriend packing up boxes to send out to Ollie and dressing up in silly Halloween outfits, taking photos to print and add to a Halloween theme box of goodies – just silly things to make him smile. I was at home when he rang and he asked how my day had been. I spent several minutes telling him all about what a lovely day I had and what wonderful boxes he was going to receive. Eventually he asked if my parents were home (I was still living at home with them, having only just started my first fulltime job as a midwife). Then he said he had something to tell me; I felt dread in that instant! Knowing it wasn’t going to be good and suddenly realising he had sounded strange and not his usual self, but I had tried to ignore it thinking it was just the phone signal or something. He explained how he and three other lads had been injured, driving over an IED. He told me he had broken ribs and some fractures. I was in shock and didn’t really take much else in from the phone call. I spoke to his parents and the texts from friends and family started coming through as people heard what had happened. He wasn’t injured so badly that he needed to come home. However, he was injured badly enough that he wasn’t going to be returning to active duty for a few months. This was of little comfort to me and it wasn’t until he was actually home months later that I learnt the true extent of his injuries.
I was in bits, I just wanted him home and it was all I could think about day and night. I waited on edge for every phone call, desperate to hear from him and hear about how the other lads, who had suffered worse injuries, were getting on. I couldn’t concentrate at work and it was like a huge black cloud over me constantly. I couldn’t see it at the time but looking back, from that phone call, I was a mess. My only release was at the weekends, when I wasn’t working I would go out with our friends and pass the time getting drunk. It was a very hard time and one that I only started to get through once I had actually seen Ollie, and had seen for myself that he was O.K and that he had made it home to me.
My second tough battle was a few years later; Ollie’s third tour of Afghan. This time things were very different. After the previous tour we bought a house together, we had our daughter, got married and now, had just had our son. Our son was only six days old when Ollie went on his third tour of Afghan. This time I couldn’t be self obsessed like I had been on the previous tour. I had to function as I had two babies who needed me. It was just as hard, but for totally different reasons. Our daughter, having said goodbye to her Daddy and hello to her baby brother was suddenly having screaming fits every night saying she wanted her Daddy. That was very hard to cope with and I often phoned my parents in floods of tears because I couldn’t console her in those early weeks. I just wanted to cry with her, and I’m sure the hormones didn’t help. I kept very busy. Luckily the night feeds meant I was usually too tired to over think things but when I did get a chance to think, I feared the worst; I wondered how would this affect the kids? Will our Son bond with his Dad? Will he ever get to know his Dad (you don’t like to think of worst case scenario but on bad days it does play on your mind!) Although I had amazing support from mine and Ollie’s family and my friends, I felt essentially alone. I felt that no one knew what I was going through. Although my best friends’ husband was in Afghan at the same time, she lived in Catterick, so it meant support via a phone call, and with both of us having young kids it was hard to find the time to chat in peace. I had friends who lived close by who had babies just a few weeks after mine so we spent a lot of time together as ‘mummy friends’. However, although they were fantastic and very supportive, none of them really understood how I felt. I can honestly say the kids got me through that tour, it was tough but keeping busy and trying to make sure the kids didn’t suffer got me through.
My highest reward would have to be charity based; after our friend Robert Pearson died in Afghan I initiated getting a community group together. We planned a huge Memorial Day and superheroes themed night to raise money for Help For Heroes. We raised about £6000 on that one event. I then became a Help For Heroes rep and the group continued raising money for the charity. I feel very proud of all the work we did. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to continue this since having kids. I found working part time and giving everything I can to my kids (often being both Mum and Dad to them) I just didn’t have the time anymore which is a shame but they are, and always will be, my priority.
I also feel immensely proud of the fact I completed the Commando Challenge along with 22 other Royal Marine Wives, Girlfriends and Mums raising a total of £9000 between us. I would have felt proud of this achievement anyway but I did the challenge exactly a week after Ollie had been involved in the IED incident. I wasn’t in any fit state to be running, never mind running with all the extra bits like the sheep dip! But I did it! I came home with a medal, and the biggest blister ever (thanks to borrowing Rob’s boots which didn’t fit me properly!) I was lucky enough to get a phone call from Ollie the next morning and to be able to tell him I had completed the challenge was fantastic. I was a mess and for several months after that I was a mess, but for that one day I achieved something I could really be proud of.
The tours, the injury, the constant distance and time apart, essentially feeling like I am bringing two kids up alone is what I find hardest for me. But the homecomings and special events are so good! I think we enjoy them more because we have to make the most of our time together. The best memories I have are after Ollie’s third tour of Afghan; I was still on maternity leave, our son was eight months old, our daughter was three and we had about six weeks of just spending time together. We went to Butlins, had a week in Scarborough (thanks to the British Legion) days out, days in the house doing normal things, and to end that time together we were lucky enough to have a big family holiday to Turkey. It was so nice to see our family bonding together again, making the most of our time together and doing normal family things without feeling constantly rushed!
If I’m being honest, I can’t wait for Ollie to leave the Marines, I know the grass isn’t always greener, but I long for more of a normal family life. I’m fed up of the months spent apart with hardly any contact (at present two months done another five weeks to go!) and I just want us to be together more!
Having said that I will fully support whatever Ollie chooses to do. We still live in our home town, so I always have the support around me from family and friends. Although I sometimes wish for something different I can, and will, continue the ‘Marine Wife life’ for as long as it’s needed because it is better to spend hardly anytime at all with the right person than all the time in the world with the wrong person.
We try to prepare the kids several weeks in advance of a deployment or exercise reminding them that Daddy is going away with work for a very long time but when he comes home we will have something to look forward to, (most recently Christmas). The last time we said goodbye our daughter was crying hysterically and it was heartbreaking, I think now she’s older she understands more. We use a plaque we had made to count down the number of days until Daddy is home. When he was last in Afghan we got creative with the last month and painted/ coloured in thirty envelopes and stuck them to a pin board, each envelope had a number on and a chocolate inside. The final bit of the countdown saw us turning each envelope over and eating the chocolates until we were left with all the paintings on show making a sign saying “Daddy’s home” plus the final envelope contained a full size chocolate bar! I seem to remember my daughter cheating and helping herself to extra bits of chocolate so I did have to refill them! We have a Royal Marine teddy which we tend to get out when he’s away too, which I think is nice for the kids. Packing up boxes and sending letters is also good for them to help with. I bought the kids a book which explains that even when someone is away from you there’s an ‘invisible ribbon of hearts’ that joins you together forever. Our daughter has spoken about how she never wants to break the ‘ribbon of hearts’ and that she will always be ok as long as she has the magical, invisible ‘ribbon of hearts’. She tells me how much she misses him all the time but neither of the children like talking to him on the phone for some reason, I think because if they do they realise how much they miss him and it makes them sad
As hard as it is, I do love the ‘Marine family’, that part of the Marines is fantastic! Most of the local lads I knew in Grimsby who served in the Marines have now left and gone on to pastures new, but no matter how long they were in the Marines it’s like they say, ‘Once a Marine always a Marine’; they support each other no matter what. For the Royal Marines 350th birthday and in the summer before Ollie left for a training exercise there was a big local event for the lads to celebrate. I just know when all of them are old and grey they will still be meeting up in the local pub, the Navy Bar, and catching up and sharing ‘dits’ and will still support each other as much then as they do now. That part of the military brings a huge smile to my face and makes me feel like it would definitely be O.K for Ollie to serve as many years as he wants in the Marines!