FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Crystal Cavalier knows first-hand that the life of a military spouse can test your inner reserve of strength. After her husband, Dany, was injured in Iraq, he returned to Fort Bragg a different man. Cavalier noticed that Dany withdrew from the Family, choosing to lose himself in video games instead. The nightmares, the anger and the other signs of post-traumatic stress disorder tore at her Family's sense of normalcy.

"When they go and experience trauma, of course they come back changed. You have to learn to identify it and stick there with them. You have to be patient in dealing with a Soldier who has this problem," said Cavalier. She is now a spokesperson for spouses dealing with the same issue, because she said that it's often a silent burden of military life.

"He's changed and I've changed too, I've become stronger and more independent," said Cavalier, a mother of three children and an Army spouse of 10 years.

Cavalier understands the heartache. But despite this, she chooses to send a different message to anyone who will listen. Cavalier wants women to know that the life of a military spouse is also one of triumph and traveling and cultural expansion and finding new friends in the most unexpected places.

"It's always a new adventure," said Cavalier.

Cavalier's husband nominated her for the Military Spouse Magazine, Spouse of the Year Award, for 2011. Dany wrote a letter outlining her accomplishments and the sacrifices she made to keep the Family together. But the praise didn't stop there. He talked about her volunteer work for the local Red Cross disaster team, her involvement with the Family readiness group and her stint as the Fort Bragg chapter director for Blue Star Families. Cavalier also earned the President's Volunteer Service Award from the National Military Family Association for giving over 250 hours of her time in 2010. If this weren't enough, Cavalier holds down a fulltime job as the Congressional affairs assistant for USASOC and attends college at a nearby university.

"He tries to be all tough and macho but he's so sweet," said Cavalier, when asked about the nomination.

Now in its fourth year, the Military Spouse of the Year awards select the top candidate in each branch of service - Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. The unveiling of the overall winner (selected by a combination of popular vote and in-house election) will take place on May 5, during an awards ceremony in Washington D.C.

Babette Maxwell, founder and executive editor of Military Spouse Magazine, praised all of the finalists. "It speaks to the evolution of military spouses' requirements - who that person is and what they represent ... men, women, minorities, all ranks and stations," said Maxwell.

"There's no cookie cutter, no template. Our first winner started a nonprofit, our second winner was a former marine; we've had people start their own business. An extraordinary person always wins and what personifies extraordinary will change from year to year," explained Maxwell, who personally reads each submission.

Maxwell, a former Army brat and a Navy spouse for the past 15 years, has held a military ID card for all but six weeks of her life. She traced the humble beginnings of Military Spouse Magazine to a stretch of highway along Interstate 10, somewhere between California and Texas, during a military transfer to Virginia. In the wake of 9/11, Maxwell saw a need for easier access to information and programs for military spouses. She added, "I tell people all the time, it's not bad for a magazine that was born in my car."

As MSM grew in popularity, so did its influence among military spouses and the general public.
"We didn't want the military spouse perceived as a woman standing on the pier, with her children in her arms, waving goodbye. It's an element (of military life) but only a small portion," said Maxwell.

So the staff of MSM turned the spotlight onto the women (and men) who support our Soldiers through deployments, injuries and life's other surprises - the steadfast life partner. These are the people who pay the bills, care for the kids, keep the romance alive, send care packages, build their own careers, educate themselves and inspire others along the way.

"No one hears or reads about the lives we impact (as military spouses) because we're not glory hounds. We do things because it's the right thing to do, because it's good for the community," added Maxwell.

Cavalier continues to inspire other spouses while juggling the responsibilities of an Army spouse. She will soon graduate with a masters degree in public administration from the University of North Carolina, Pembroke.

"I want to help other spouses know there are things out there you can do with your life. You don't just have to be dependent on your Soldier," said Cavalier.

And if she wins, what will be her message to other military spouses'

"You've got to have a dream because if you don't have a dream you're working towards nothing. It can even be a small dream, but you've got to have a dream," she said.