'Commando' couple embraces Army, Family values
December 1, 2011
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Balancing work and personal responsibilities is a challenge for many families, but dual-military Families face a different set of challenges when dealing with long duty days, deployments and other separations.
One Fort Drum dual-military couple -- Warrant Officer Julia Armstrong and Sgt. 1st Class Everett Armstrong -- has endured almost 35 years of combined military service, all while raising a Family, balancing work schedules and keeping open lines of communication.
Julia Armstrong, who serves as an adjutant general technician for 2nd Brigade Combat Team "Commandos," works down the hall from her husband, who is the brigade's dining facility noncommissioned officer in charge. While working in the same building together has its benefits, it hasn't always been easy for the Fort Drum Family.
Everett Armstrong, who grew up in Houston, has served in the Army for 20 years. As a child, he never thought the military was the right choice for him.
"The military was always something I loved watching on TV, but I never thought it would be for me," he said. "Growing up in a rough area in Houston, (the idea of the Army lifestyle) pretty much gave me the push to get out of there."
"Growing up, I was adamant about being married," he continued. "I didn't want to be a football star; I just wanted to be a father. I was already ready for the mission that was coming. I think it was hard on my Family when I went straight into the military. They had no clue until that recruiter showed up on the doorstep. I was ready to write a new chapter for myself, and I say it turned out great."
Armstrong remembers his high school graduation was June 6, 1991, and five days later, he was at basic training.
"The military has been very good for me -- I've got my kids, my wife and everything."
He and his wife met in 1996 while he was stationed at Fort Sill, Okla.
"We met on a basketball court, of all places," he said.
Being an athletic individual, his meeting Julia on a basketball court doesn't seem strange until people see the couple in person.
"I'm 6'2" and he's 5'4," and everybody assumes that I'm the basketball player," Julia Armstrong said, laughing. "I'm so not athletic."
Armstrong was not in the Army when she met her husband for the first time. She met her husband while dropping her friend off at her job on Fort Sill. She noticed a group of Soldiers playing basketball and goofing around. That's when she saw Everett.
Armstrong asked her friend about her future husband, but her friend warned her that he was "short."
"From a distance, 5'4" doesn't look that bad, but when I met him -- he was short," she said. "We exchanged phone numbers, and we talked on the phone every day that week. We had our first date that Friday and we've been inseparable from that point on. We got married six months later (in September 1996)."
Even though it's been almost 16 years since they met, Armstrong still remembers exactly what his wife was wearing.
"I thought she was gorgeous -- in tennis shoes, sweat pants that were a little high because she was so tall, and a big Starter overcoat," he said. "Our first words were 'wow, you're short' and 'wow, you're tall.' And we joked from there."
The Armstrongs think it's funny when people don't realize that they're married.
"It's hilarious, even now," Julia Armstrong said. "We have the same last name, but even until a couple of months ago, there were people who didn't put the two together that we are married."
Laughing, understanding and communication have helped this Army couple stay strong during their careers.
Nine months after they were married, Julia Armstrong decided to join the Army in May 1997.
"I had been going to school, working two jobs and raising our oldest (son), and it was just too much," she said.
Fifteen years later, she still loves the Army, but she said she's a little scared at what the future may hold if her husband decides to retire.
"He's at that point where he's at the end of the road, and that scares me because I'm so used to us being a dual-military couple," Armstrong said.
The Armstrong Family has been fortunate to not have to endure too many separations from each other or from their four children -- Devyn, 17; Stephon, 15; and twins Trinity and Everett Jr., 4.
With the exception of training and Everett Armstrong's deployment to Iraq from 2003 to 2004, the couple has been able to stay close. The Armstrongs served together during all their assignments, including Korea.
"All of our duty stations have been always been about us being together as a Family unit," Julia Armstrong said. "We've always considered our Family and the Army equal; if it was good for the Army and it was good for the Family, it was good for us."
During their careers, balancing work and Family hasn't always been easy, she explained.
"There were times where you question if you're putting the military before your Family or vice versa," Armstrong said, adding that over the years, they have learned to share the responsibility equally. "There are so many other factors. I think what works for us is that we communicate."
Each has faced jobs that required long hours and late nights, while the other tended to the children, cooked dinner and cleaned the house.
"I think for us, it just works," Julia Armstrong said. "We tackle things head on. We discuss it and talk about it. There's no time for someone to say 'I don't want to do that,' because it's all about the kids and making sure things are good for them."
Although the couple has mastered the ways of Army life on and off duty, it is still a struggle when it comes to ensuring their children are taken care of. When both have to go to the field, they have to know that the people who watch their children are responsible.
"It takes coordination," she said. "You can't just leave your kids with anyone; you have to have that support system. We don't have Family here, so it takes a while to get to know people and trust them with your kids. That's a lot of responsibility to pass on to someone else."
Everett Armstrong agreed. Right now, it's his wife's turn to work late some days, so he picks up the slack at home.
"We're in sync," he said. "I already know what needs to be done, and I know when she's working late. There's no reason for me to call to ask what she needs me to do. I'm already starting the washing, cooking, kids are bathed, so when she gets home all she needs to do is rest."
He added that throughout his career, he has been fortunate to have great assignments.
"At Fort Sill, when I first met my wife, it was pretty rough because I was always in the field or always working," Armstrong said. "As the years progressed, I've bounced around and gotten some excellent jobs where I can cover my own hours."
Julia Armstrong added that she believes a lot of their success throughout the years has to do with the command climate. They've been fortunate to have supportive commands that understood their situation.
"They have to understand that (with us), they're getting two for the price of one," Armstrong said. "There will be times where a kid gets sick and I have to leave work because he can't.
Working in an environment where people understand that and they support you and they see that you're still part of the team, (you're) an asset and they're getting the best end of the deal makes all the difference."
"The last thing you want is to feel guilty because you're not at work or you have to leave," she continued. "It's a different situation from a Family where the mother or father doesn't work. I think sometimes it's easy for some people to write that off because they don't understand."
The most important aspect to having a successful dual-military marriage is understanding each other and communicating, according to Everett Armstrong. He said all the long hours and tough assignments he's endured during the past 20 years have made him appreciate his wife and the more laid-back jobs he's had during his career.
While Julia Armstrong was a Soldier at the time, she got a taste of being a military spouse at home during her husband's deployment eight years ago.
"He deployed from 2003 to 2004 during (Operation Iraqi Freedom I)," she said. "At that time, we only had our oldest living with us, so it wasn't too bad. I had a (nondeployable) assignment and a lot of support, because we were stationed at Fort Sill. I had a lot of friends and Family there.
"It wasn't as hard on me dealing with the logistics of housekeeping, home and my son," Armstrong continued. "It was more just the mental (hardship) of him not being there and going through that -- not knowing and limited communication."
For the first 10 years of their marriage, when it came to separations, the Armstrongs only had to think of their son Devyn, because Stephon lives in Dallas. While stationed in Houston, the couple welcomed the two youngest Armstrongs into their Family.
"Devyn was 13 when the twins were born," Julia Armstrong said. "I think he's at the point where he understands what his role is and what their role is and that it's not a competition anymore."
"It was a struggle for him at first," she continued. "He went from being the only child in the house to all of a sudden there are two screaming babies who need their diapers changed, formula mixed and Mom only has two hands. It's matured him a lot and made him decide he doesn't want kids anytime soon."
Being a big brother and a military child has allowed the Watertown High School student to understand what his parents go through, Julia Armstrong explained.
"He helps out a lot," she said. "He has his chores, but at the same time, he's a very spoiled kid. He has a good work ethic and helps out a lot around the house. The twins adore him, probably more than he'd like. Even though there's an age gap, there's still that sibling rivalry and love."
Love is one thing the Armstrongs don't lack. Their dedication to communicating, sharing the load at home and understanding one another has allowed the dual-military couple to endure the challenges they face.
Through separations, busy jobs and living apart from their son Stephon, who comes to visit in the summer and on some holidays, Everett and Julia Armstrong make sure their Family and jobs are considered when making any decision.