I arrived on the Hilltop as a freshman in 2009. Yet while my classmates were preoccupied with the transition from high school to college, I was prepared for a different transition: My then-boyfriend of three years, Cpl. Eduardo “Lalo” Panyagua, was about to deploy to Afghanistan with the Marine Corps’ India Battery, 3rd Battalion. Lalo had survived his first tour in Iraq in 2008, and the news of another deployment came as a shock. On an impulse, we eloped.
Lalo traveled from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to the District. I insisted on getting married on Sept. 21 so the Earth, Wind & Fire song “September” could be our wedding song. Lalo and I received our marriage license in the morning, I headed off to my microeconomics and English classes and then rushed to New South to get ready for my wedding at the Arlington Courthouse across the Key Bridge. One of my new college friends was our witness; unfortunately, others could not attend because they did not want to miss class. A month later, Lalo was on his way to Afghanistan, and I was entering my first midterm season.
To my parents’ joy, I did not get married to validate a pregnancy or to receive military benefits. I do not know any 18-year-olds at Georgetown overwhelmed with finding affordable healthcare or life insurance. Most of my peers on campus could not fathom getting married at our age, and my decision became an awkward ice breaker in conversations with other students and professors. My feminist ideals were questioned — even though I kept my last name, opted to live on campus, continued my studies and funded my own education through scholarships, grants and a part-time job.
But my marriage put my college life in perspective. I laughed when I saw students panicking over printer jams in Lauinger Library minutes before their essays were due. I, on the other hand, was preoccupied with my husband’s safety, religiously reading the news surrounding a firebase called Fiddler’s Green and operations in Marjah, Helmand Province. Every casualty report made me question whether the Marine identified was my husband, and I began to dread the officers dressed in their military uniforms walking around campus because there was a possibility that one was a casualty notification officer bringing me the news of my husband’s death.
I now have a red box that sits on my desk filled with letters Lalo has written me since his first night in Marine Corps Boot Camp. In return, I wrote him a letter every day of his deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. I sent him care packages every month containing baby wipes, heating pads and racy magazines (he appreciated the magazines most of all). Needless to say, these packages were a bit different than those parents send their children to help them survive college.
Beyond the alienation of being the only undergraduate at the time who had a spouse in the military, the toughest burden was carrying a personal connection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within the School of Foreign Service, I participated in many classroom discussions surrounding security studies, and the misunderstandings many 18-year-olds had about their military counterparts — who are often the same age as them — shocked and infuriated me. It was clear that the military and their families were at war, but even within one of the most prestigious programs for international affairs, the reality of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was not felt.
More veterans need to feel comfortable telling their stories, which would help embed their experience in the larger society. This comfort is dependent on the willingness of civilians to listen and not pretend to understand what war does to an individual’s identity. As a spouse, I am still trying to understand. My husband now suffers from severe post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries and has been brave enough to share his story with students in several of my classes. I have never been asked about my experience as a college student who also happens to be married to a service member. I’m thankful to have the opportunity to share a bit about the lives of military families, which too often can go overlooked.
DONNA HERNANDEZ is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.