CHICAGO — How many families get wobbly if a husband or wife goes out of town on business for a couple of days?
Now imagine one of them being gone for weeks or longer. Worse, both of them.
Welcome to the world of Rob and Berni Bland, of Belvidere, Ill., two longtime members of the Illinois National Guard who have shipped out to such exotic locales as Japan, Africa and Fort Benning, Ga., during their 15 years of marriage.
“When we first got married, we said we wanted to travel the world,” Rob says. “But God has a sense of humor. We never said we wanted to travel the world together.”
Berni is a stay-at-home mom, mostly. She reports one weekend a month to the National Guard armory on North Kedzie Avenue in Chicago, goes on two-week training sessions and is deployed as events warrant. Rob is a full-time National Guardsman who commutes to the armory daily and likewise has seen the world.
Both are 39 and have attained the rank of major.
“It works for us,” Berni says. “People will ask, ‘How do you do it?’ We just do. We both enjoy the military, so we make it work.”
The couple met at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., in 1994. Both juniors, she was studying aviation administration, and he was studying psychology and criminal social justice and was in the ROTC. Their first encounter had a certain sweetness to it.
Rob came to a dorm looking for a woman he worked with, to ask her to cover a shift for him.
While looking for her, he heard laughter from a nearby room. He thought it might be his co-worker, but it turned out to be Berni and her friend Liz, who asked him if he wanted to go running.
Berni says she and Liz made a habit of running at night. “We used to ask everybody who came around if they wanted to come with, and he was the first to say yes.”
“Two girls ask you to go running at 10 at night, what’s the worst that could happen?” Rob asks.
Details of that night’s run are fuzzy — “obviously it went well,” he says — and they started hanging out. The relationship blossomed, they became engaged, and they were married in November 1997.
By then, Rob had graduated and had gotten a full-time job with the National Guard as a training officer in Joliet.
Berni graduated a semester after he did (she had lost some credits when she transferred to Lewis before her junior year), then later went back to school to get her MBA; she also joined the ROTC.
After the wedding, they settled into the military lifestyle. That meant separation.
During their engagement Rob had gone to training school for six months. But then the training sessions and deployments came regularly.
Berni spent two years on active duty, stationed in Maryland and also Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa. Rob went to Fort Polk, La., for a year.
A month after he came home, she was called up to assist in the Hurricane Katrina recovery. He served in Iraq for a year. Berni has been sent on training sessions to Ghana, Botswana and Korea; Rob to Iceland and Japan. She expects to be deployed overseas next year.
Complicating the logistics were two sons, now 9 and 4, who didn’t always get to have both Mom and Dad around.
“The oldest, he understands,” Rob says. “He’s not always happy with it, but he understands.”
Adds Berni: “But he thought it was pretty cool when the school had a Veterans Day event, and we both went. Some kids had one parent or someone they know, but he had two parents. That day he was a rock star.”
Family members from both sides help care for the kids when one or both of them are either deployed or participating in monthly drills at the armory in Chicago.
Military life presents its own set of challenges beyond the separations. There’s also the knowledge that your spouse may be in harm’s way. But that, the Blands say, is not something they fear.
“Sometimes I think (the fear is) less, because I understand more,” Berni explains. “You always fear when they go overseas, but there’s not that same (type of worry), that fear of the unknown.”
Rob agrees. “Having someone who has gone through the same training, or similar training, they understand.”
There are advantages. “We cherish the small things,” Rob says. “Since we have been apart, we treasure the time together.”
“When you’re together all the time, you take each other for granted,” agrees Berni. “Since we’ve been apart, that doesn’t happen much.”
There’s also better communication, at least between the two of them.
“We can talk about stuff,” Berni says. “One thing with the military, there’s a lot of jargon and things that are difficult to understand. Some soldiers can go home, and their spouse might not understand what they’re talking about.”
Adds Rob: “A lot of time we’ll be talking jargon to one another, and people will say, ‘What are you saying?’”
After 15 years of marriage, what have they learned that they wish to pass on to other couples, military and civilian alike?
“Make time for a date night,” Berni says. “Because we are apart so much, we have to make that effort.”