Surviving two wars: An active-duty love story

February 11, 2015
I AM UAA: Jordan and Jessica Gray, military veterans and nursing students. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

I AM UAA: Jordan and Jessica Gray, military veterans and nursing students. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

The first anniversary UAA nursing students Jessica and Jordan Gray celebrate is January 4, the day they met on the Texas tarmac, awaiting the start of medic school. As serendipity, and the U.S. Army, would have it, they were side by side in alphabetical formation—Jordan Gray and Jessica Grimm—a pairing the Army would sustain through their four months of intensive training. They eyed each other and thought, “Now, what’s your story?”

Their second anniversary, in September, celebrates the day they were officially married, a day they didn’t actually spend together. In fact, it wasn’t until their fourth wedding anniversary that they managed to be in the same country, same state.

“I was wary to celebrate together,” laughed Jessica. “I thought maybe it was good luck—we weren’t together when we were married, we haven’t celebrated an anniversary together, maybe that’s the day we don’t spend together. Maybe that’s what’s making everything work out so well!” But their co-located fourth and fifth anniversaries went off without a hitch and launched a new normal for the couple that’s worked so hard to be together.

Joining the Army

Jessica grew up as an Army brat, the daughter of a now-retired colonel, moving every two years or so. She vowed as a teenager that the government would never “own” her like that. And then, at 27, she found herself looking for a change.

“We were in the middle of two wars that had been going on for a long time,” she said. “I wanted to do something that had meaning…so I joined the Army.”

Jordan was also looking for a career change and a chance to serve. He had moved to Alaska from his native Michigan and was attending UAA, knocking out pre-reqs for the nursing program. In chemistry lab he was partnered with a woman who happened to be serving as a captain in the Army National Guard. She invited him over for dinner where she and her husband, an Air National Guardsman, gave him the insider perspective on serving with the Guard.

“I wanted to go to Afghanistan and I wanted to go as a medic,” he said. “That’s what I could contribute. I was unmarried, I had no children. Who better than me? I’ve felt that pull since 9/11, or since high school, really, and this was the time. As a Guardsman, I knew I could do it a la carte.”

Long distance romance

Four months being side-by-side in medic school were enough to spark a romance between Jordan and Jessica. They told themselves they would be practical about it. Wait and see what happened. Take it slow. They both laugh now at the memory.

Immediately after medic school, Jessica shipped out to Germany and Jordan shopped around for a Guard unit that would be deploying to Afghanistan right away. While Alaska would remain his home of record, he was able to “loan” himself to the Illinois National Guard for his first tour.

Jordan Gray

Jordan Gray in Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Gray)

Once they were separated, the two started burning up the phone lines, and their cash, with long-distance calls.

“I finally got Internet in my barracks room and we’re Skyping every night for hours. We just really enjoyed talking to each other,” Jessica said. She managed to finagle a little leave and they spent two weeks together before she deployed to Iraq and he to Afghanistan within days of each other. It was there that communication got tricky.

“So there we are, separated, and falling in love,” said Jordan.

Jessica added, “Even though we said we were being practical, I was head over heels.”

Proposal on top of an Afghan mountain

Jordan was the medic for a seven-man unit in the mountains of Afghanistan, on the border of Pakistan. It was dangerous. Talking about it, Jessica’s voice cracks and her eyes start to well up.

They communicated mostly by snail mail, letters dropped by Black Hawk along with the month’s provisions. “How are you? What do you think about marriage? Kids? Dogs? Where would we live?” When they could, they’d chat by satellite phone.

“Amazingly enough, I got a phone number in Iraq in a clinic where Jessica was not always in a clinical setting. I could stand on a mountain, looking at Pakistan, talking to her,” Jordan said. But there was a three-and-a-half-month stretch in there with no communication. Enough to make any girlfriend sick with worry.

What you have to understand, they explained, is in the military, a non-spouse—a girlfriend, boyfriend, fiancé, whoever—has no legal right to information about their loved one.

“If he had died, by the Army standard, I would have had no reason to grieve,” Jessica said. “He was in a really rough spot and he wasn’t sure he was going to make it to the other end. He was worried about me and how I would be able to cope where I was, at my war in Iraq, if something did happen to him. So he asked me if I wanted to get married.”

Jordan proposed by satellite phone in an Afghanistan-to-Iraq, war-to-war phone call. She said yes and Marty—the Montana-based proprietor of A Big Sky Event, which advertises their facilitation of double-proxy weddings in the Stars and Stripes—made the rest happen. Two women, paid proxies, headed to a courthouse in Montana and tied the knot for Jessica and Jordan. The happy couple found out by email a couple days later.

“I spent my wedding night cuddled up next to a goat,” joked Jordan.

It wasn’t until more than four months later that the newlyweds would see each other face-to-face, in the Frankfurt airport.

“I was a mess!” said Jessica. She remembers standing outside the automatic sliding doors that separated her from the arriving travelers in baggage claim. “Every time they opened, I started crying.”

Finally, Jordan came through. “I dropped to one knee and scared the Germans,” he said. “‘Why is that American crying?!’” He had a ring, carefully chosen during his whirlwind demobilization trip to the U.S.

Jessica Gray

Jessica Gray in Iraq. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Gray)

“We got the world’s best honeymoon,” he added. After 16 months in back-to-back Afghanistan tours, Jordan had some time off and was able to join Jessica in Germany for several months where she was stationed, working a Monday-through-Friday job.

“I got to take her to work and meet her for lunch, pick her up and plan something every weekend,” he said. “We had a car, so every weekend, we’d drive somewhere in Europe—Slovenia and Italy and Austria and Germany and Switzerland.”

“It was amazing,” agreed Jessica.

Same mission: conquer nursing school

Happily ever after, together, has been something Jessica and Jordan work hard to achieve. At one point, it involved Excel spreadsheets and a six-year plan.

“UAA has been the destination from before we even got married,” said Jessica. They both liked the steady pace of the 20-month Bachelor of Science in nursing program. While they hung out on the two-year waitlist, they checked off pre-reqs and made sure both of them would be eligible for 100 percent of their GI Bill education benefits. Now they’re halfway through the program, both in the same cohort, avoiding student debt.

“He was scheduled to be a cohort above me, but he postponed again so he could wait for me to catch up and do the entire program together in the same cohort,” said Jessica with a smile. “That way we’d have the same mission, same enemy, same agenda.”

“It’s been perfect,” said Jordan.

In 10 more months, these two lovebirds are looking forward to graduating and dusting off their Alaska bucket list, something they shelved to focus on school. Having school eclipse exploration is a first-world problem they’re happy to have.

“We have great first-world problems,” Jordan said with a big smile. “I like them a lot.”

“Love our problems,” agreed Jessica.

“In the beginning it was good luck,” she added, referencing their fortunate meeting in Texas. “Since then I think we’ve made a lot of our luck. We stuck to the plan even when it meant we’d have to be separated again and again and again in order to make it happen. We made the sacrifices and we’re here, feeling very fortunate. We sit across from each other at our desk and high-five each other going, ‘We’re students!’”

 

Written by Jamie Gonzales, UAA Office of University Advancement

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