BRUNSSUM, Netherlands – At the confluence of the Belgian, Dutch and German borders sits the Tri-Border region where different peoples, cultures, and nations, converge daily. This is a region where NATO allies live, play, and work, alongside one another and where long-lasting relationships are forged.
One such recent example can be found between newlyweds, Sgt. Jenna Gabaldón, U.S. Army Garrison Benelux, and Sgt. Laure Delbrouck, Belgian Defense.
How it all started
“It sounds cliché” said Gabaldón, Physical Security Sergeant at the Brunssum Site “but from a young age I wanted to be a police officer, I always really wanted to do it.”
“I have relatives who are in law enforcement and I remember going to a graduation one time and thinking, wow that’s so cool!”
Gabaldón’s aspirations did not wain as she grew up. She joined Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) as a sophomore in high school, serving in the program for three years and quickly realized she could combine her dreams of working in law enforcement with military service.
“I signed up as a junior under delayed enlistment and left for Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT), a month after graduation.”
Following One Station Unit Training (OSUT) in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, Gabaldón PCS’d to Fort Drum, New York and served in a line unit for two years before joining a detachment as a game warden.
“I was one of the first females in the Army to take the course and get it (the certification), I loved it!” While the duties of game warden are not unheard of for the Army, an official course for the Enlisted Record Brief (ERB), at that time was new.
“I worked in partnership with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which is the organization for their game wardens. It was my favorite job in the whole world and I was the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) for a year before coming here.”
Gabaldón arrived in the Benelux September 2019, and soon after met the person who would become her wife.
Delbrouck like Gabaldón was also drawn to her own career early in life. It was this and other commonalities which helped to build the relationship between the two women.
“I knew about the army from a very, very young age because I was in the Cub Scouts and then the Scouts. Some of my scout leaders were in a light infantry battalion in the town I grew up in, Spa, Belgium. Those scout leaders would tell us stories of some of the things they did in the army which was pretty great.”
Delbrouck explained that Belgian scout programs offer both gender segregated and integrated options differing from typical U.S. Scout programs.
“I was a part of the integrated scouts. We had camps, did physical training, push-ups, and obstacle courses in the woods. We’d salute the flag, sang the national anthems as we raised the flag and had uniform rules, which kind of set me up for this life.”
“I originally wanted to join the U.S. Marines when I was a kid,” said Delbrouck who shared her avid love of military films, “but I was very attached to my home country so instead I joined the Belgian Defense straight out of high school.”
Delbrouck started airborne jumps at the age of 17. As one of the first females in the course she earned Bravo level qualifications. Her path as a junior officer candidate led to attendance at the Royal Military Academy in Brussels, a Belgian equivalent to West Point.
However, a year into the program Delbrouck felt conflicted and sought change.
“Mainly due to the fact that there is a lot of desk work (on the officer career path) and I’m not meant for desk work. I could do it, but I wanted to be more hands on, in the woods, crawling in the mud with the other Soldiers.”
Delbrouck was granted a transfer to Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) School which led to her current career in Communication and Information Systems (CIS), more commonly known as signals. She is stationed about an hour and a half away from Gabaldón in Marche-en-Famenne, Belgium.
Their story together
“When we first met, I made a lame joke about us both in the military,” said Delbrouck, “but it was funny,” said Gabaldón. Their initial banter turned into a friendship that quickly advanced, “because when you know, you know,” said Gabaldón.
“We are so able to bond being in the military, I think that’s what brought us close initially,” said Gabaldón. “And I appreciated her perspective, she’s open minded, lots of commonalities made getting to know one another more interesting.”
Their whirlwind courtship led to marriage in November 2020, but travel restrictions wrought by the pandemic meant they couldn’t travel to Belgium or the U.S. for a ceremony. The two instead married via a double proxy which was only possible through the state of Montana. The following day, Delbrouck shipped out on a four month deployment.
They faced some challenges early into their marriage unique to their situation.
Delbrouck’s records were all in French and needed to be translated to English for U.S. systems to offer spouse/dependent services. Their respective ops tempos and schedules, work locations, and service commitments, mean half of their time married is spent physically separated. And COVID travel restrictions with border closures have also impacted the newlyweds.
Plans are in the works for a future wedding celebration that includes members of both families.
For now, Gabaldón and Delbrouck have leaned into their support systems with weekly visits to Delbrouck’s family in Belgium (when restrictions have allowed travel), and video chats with Gabaldón’s family back in the U.S.
And as their relationship grows they are conscious in carving out time together, enjoying each other’s cultures, and learning more about one another, each day.
“I’m working on my French, it’s kind of rough,” said Gabaldón, “and she really wants to go to the U.S.”
Having never been to America, Delbrouck was initially in awe of the garrison’s Commissary. “I’ve never seen anything like it, I know we had something like that when Belgians were working in Germany but it only lasted until the late 90s.”
“But in reality I don’t think we have huge differences on the big things like family traditions,” said Gabaldón.
“Obviously there are some things we don’t have in Europe like Thanksgiving or Black Friday,” said Delbrouck, “but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Americans you guys are super welcoming, everyone has been really nice.”
Open and optimistic for the future
“I think all in all especially between Soldiers we have a lot more in common than we have differences,” said Delbrouck, “the humor is the same, the experiences are extremely similar be it basic, deployments, or day to day military life.”
That said they still encounter people with “old school” opinions who find it hard to accept someone different. Both agree more change is still needed, yet they remain optimistic.
“I see a whole new generation of Soldiers and I think because there is a definite shift in mentality they are more accepting,” said Delbrouck, “they don’t conform to binary, they are looking beyond whatever people might say about them and seeing it actually doesn’t matter that much.”
When asked what’s next for them personally and professionally, the couple was candid.
Gabaldón has served for five years and recently reenlisted extending her time here in the Benelux another two years. Delbrouck has served for seven years and is on an open contract. Both are excited for the prospect of eventually moving back to the U.S.