We were high school sweethearts, attending school dances with horrifically hip outfits holding hands and smooching outside of the gym. While the under classmen were gossiping about how long we would last, I was planning our hypothetical wedding. So when my boyfriend of two years decided to join the Marines shortly after graduation with a fervor I would never understand, I committed myself to seeing us through. I just wasn’t ready to set those wedding plans in motion quite yet.
After three months of boot camp and scribbled out letters written by flashlight, he was dumped in the desert- to live…for the next four years. Already anticipating that he would be placed at a duty station neighboring California’s sunny beaches, I cried. The town, dubbed 29 Palms for the circle of 29 palm trees that reside somewhere in the town, is tucked away on a massive stretch of desert some fifty miles from the lush retirement communities in Palm Springs, California. But 29 Palms is as far removed from the posh faux green landscapes of its neighboring towns as Coloradans are from Russia- or Antarctica for that matter. Most of the population of the town is concentrated within the confines of the base itself, a sprawling gated enclave that is virtually self-sustained. This of course allows Marines to have as little contact with the slightly off kilter population of the town itself as possible. And if choices are what these lonely Marines are looking for…well they just won’t find those in this neck of the woods. Even if they wanted to support the pitfalls of corporate America by visiting a Walmart, they would have to drive to the next armpit desert town some twenty-five miles away.
I had moved from Denver to 29 Palms in August, breathing in the stale air that was no competition for the air conditioning that attempted to churn through my sauna of a car. My dad huffed along behind me, his foot heavy on the gas of the 91 Honda that was on its last leg. Pulling into the KFC along the “main street” of the town, my stomach caught in my throat with the force of an oncoming train. Truth be told, I had moved without ever setting eyes on the town, save for a movie I ordered on TV entitled 29 Palms- which I’m still convinced didn’t actually take place in the town. I was simply a committed girlfriend that was willing to put her city life on hold for a stint in a sweltering sandbox. It was love that made me do it.
So I tried, with all the conviction I could muster, to make our newly rented “furnished” (meaning stains included) one bedroom apartment a home. And while I scrubbed the food particles from the previous renters off of the kitchen table, I felt simply like I was playing house- busying myself with chores while waiting for my other half to waltz through the door in his undeniably sexy uniform. This, I would soon learn, was the occupation of a good portion of the female population of 29 Palms.
Complaining to my boyfriend that I couldn’t last in this lonely god-forsaken town much longer he did what any good (and slightly perturbed) boyfriend would do- tried to help me make friends. So the next night he planned a double date with a friend and his wife- a girl that had left beauty school at the ripe age of 19 to chain herself to a boy that she had known a mere three months before he signed his life away to the Marine Corps. We met at the Applebee’s thirty miles outside of town (yes, even restaurant chains like Applebee’s couldn’t see the purpose of infiltrating a town like 29 Palms). Awkwardly we attempted to forge conversations until we simply let our significant others take control by talking about their shitty chain of command while we nodded superficially. I silently rejoiced when we decided to take our double date back to their place where we could break up the monotony with some alcohol. Unfortunately for me, this just opened up the flood gates for the unhappy wife to tell me her woes. She was unemployed, as her husband liked it, and entertained only by the cable that he recently allowed her to hook up. They had one car that he refused to let her take while he was at work, thus she sweltered in the heat box that they called a house while attempting to teach her dog (her one true companion, it seemed) unimpressive tricks. I smiled politely at her list of complaints, feeling a pang of sadness for her that was quickly replaced by a disgust at her inability to stand up for herself. I wondered if she thought that it all was worth it for that shiny ring on her finger. Exchanging numbers at the end of the night, I hoped it was a mere formality and she had no intention of calling me- just as I had no intention of answering my phone.
Sensing that I wasn’t jumping for joy over his choice in my friends, my boyfriend attempted to redeem himself by telling me that there was going to be a picnic that I could go to for his platoon where maybe I could meet my own set of bosom buddies. Painting my nails and picking out my perfect picnic attire (I had little else to do considering that the cable company had yet to trek out to our neck of the woods) I anticipated all of the people I would meet. Then came the news that I in fact wouldn’t be welcome to attend since I was merely a girlfriend a not a full fledged wife. After all, leaving my life at the drop of a hat and relocating to what could be considered hell on earth was not a significant enough display of my commitment to my other half. Or of course enduring the year of separation before hand. This was when it quickly became apparent to me that while the rest of the country had made leaps and bounds in recognizing relationships outside of the conventional realm, the Marine Corps was clearly making judgments of its own and would love to see its’ men and women living their lives like a black and white TV show. Separation of religious ideals and government run organizations? I think not.
For the remainder of my glorious stay in the overlooked deserts of California, I was reminded over and over again how insignificant our relationship truly was in the eyes of the United States military. When weekends were cut short because another miserable Marine was driving drunk, defacing some hotel in a neighboring town, or punching someone’s face in, my boyfriend and all of his “single” comrades were forced to cut their vacation time short in order to repent for the sins of the one who broke the rules. All this went on, of course, while the married Marines were allowed to continue on as if nothing had happened. When the barracks rooms and other facilities needed cleaning, who added another two hours onto their work day in order to complete the task? Single Marines. Those who were lucky enough to be married needed time to spend with their loved ones after all.
However, getting an extra couple of hours reprieve from the duties of a Marine or ensuring that your weekend won’t be interrupted by another Marines stupidity are minor reasons to tie the knot. Don’t worry though, the Marine Corps has plenty more perks to offer only their most elite men and women- those with a ring on their finger and a chain on their ankle. Married Marines receive a housing stipend so that they can live in peace outside of the dorm-like accommodations of the barracks without feeling it in their wallets. “Single” Marines simply don’t rate for such luxury accommodations. When a Marine is sent overseas to fight any war that the current administrations deems necessary those who are married will receive the added benefit of “separation pay” to make up for the time spent away from loved ones. Single Marines will instead perform the same duties for less pay since they, once again, don’t have loved ones that they will be separated from.
Thus comes the concept of the “contract marriage.” In order to capitalize on their time spent in some of the most dangerous places in the world, Marines will enter into a temporary marriage to beef up their paychecks. Yes, even these “loveless” marriages take precedence over those that have endured a military career but haven’t been topped off with a ceremony and a certificate- even though they will undoubtedly end in a hasty (albeit carefully timed out) divorce. These “wives” will hear about anything that happens to their husbands while they are away far before I or any other girlfriend will hear the news- that is if we ever hear. We, after all, are the “groupies” not the “real thing.”
It’s simple, a virtually painless way of reaping some sort of reward for an often times unappreciated job. I would have even agreed to be an accomplice to this practice if I wasn’t so dead set on “doing it right” and “waiting until I’m ready.” So while friends committed themselves in a weekend to childhood friends that could use a portion of the deployment pay themselves, I just hoped I would somehow hear when a mission went wrong or- god forbid- if something really horrible happened.
Last year, after enduring seven months of a deployment that left me constantly on edge, my boyfriend and I had planned on celebrating his return at that years Marine Corps ball. After perusing dress websites and sucking myself into horribly wretched department store gowns, I was informed that the remaining tickets for the ball had been reserved for married Marines. Surprise, surprise- once again I had been reminded that our sacrifices were petty compared to those with a different title.
Although I slowly adapted to the Marine Corps life (bitching all the way of course), I still kept one foot rooted firmly in the civilian life I was used to. And that life reminded me that getting married before being able to order an alcoholic beverage was not normal nor was it a path that I wanted to skip down. So I smiled politely every time another person would ask, “Why don’t you guys just get married?” Well, for some reason I would rather not have a gun toting, war raging, entity decide when I will commit myself to someone for the rest of my life. Call me crazy.