Who’d marry a soldier?

Guess who?
… Makes friends easily, adaptable, well travelled, independent, decorator, gardener, mechanic (when necessary), single mum (frequently), tough, fiercely loyal, wry sense of humour, expert gin & tonic maker, resilient, always hopeful – a lover of life.

My dictionary definition of an army wife, in case you hadn’t guessed.
I’m proud to be one of this diminishing breed, whose other characteristic is being a ‘pack animal’. Army wives are there for one another. When the going gets tough they stand alongside each other’s families supporting one another, sometimes emotionally but also practically.

Some of my best friends are either army wives or ex-army wives. The experiences we went through together as we waited anxiously for news from war zones or coped with being a lone parent far from our families, drew us close. Those bonds aren’t easily broken. That’s why writing a book with one particular army wife was the natural thing to do.

I first met Brenda Hale when she was a Sergeant’s wife while we were posted in Germany and our husbands were on an operational tour in Northern Ireland. Our children were born within a few months of each other. Brenda put me to shame in exercising back to fitness after giving birth and supported me in trying to run chaotic Sunday school sessions at the church on the barracks. In those years, although we worried for our husbands on operations in Belfast and Bosnia, I could never imagine what lay ahead.

One sunny August morning in 2009 I found my husband hunched at the foot of the stairs, shocked by the sudden death of a great man and a good friend. Neither of us could believe that this giant of a man had been taken away and his family left devastated. The harrowing news stories on the death of more soldiers in Afghanistan had become more personal than ever.

Some days later sitting at a table in an airport I still couldn’t take in the fact that the woman beside me had lost the love of her life, the father of her children and her best friend. How could this have happened?

It’s been a privilege to retrace the journey which the Hale girls have been on, through writing I married a soldier with Brenda. As she says, we’ve shared both tears and laughter as she has recalled wonderful moments, along with the most painful times.

If you’re looking for an inspirational read that gives you a real picture of life for army families, you’ll enjoy I married a soldier published by Lion Hudson. It tells the true story of how one very special army wife found a way through an event that threatened to crush her. This is a story of hope and faith beyond grief.

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What are the chances?

There are some moments in life that remain etched in your memory. We might not realise until something triggers that vivid picture, as if a film is replaying a scene in slow motion. For me it was a friend posting a photo of their mother on Facebook…

It was winter and I think it was raining. I was sitting in the concourse of our university building. It was a general meeting/hovering area with low vinyl covered seating arranged back to back in two squares. Long windows looked onto the railings which my bicycle was locked against, wedged in beside a string of others, and beyond that loomed the concrete slab of the student union. The college shop, jammed with stationery and sweets, framed one end of the space and a wide corridor was on the other side. It was a good place just to ‘hang-out’ if you’d had enough of the library or wanted to meet someone or kill time before a lecture (pre mobile phones).

As ever my canvas bag was bulging with folders and notepads and because it was nearly the end of the day I was thinking about mustering up the energy to go out into the cold and cycle home. An older lady in a long dark pink coat and white hair caught my attention in the corridor. She had a large handbag clutched against her and paused to look across at where I was sitting. I smiled absentmindedly at her but she looked passed me and continued down the corridor studying the various notice boards lining the walls as she walked. A couple of minutes later I slung my bag across my shoulder and headed down the corridor towards the main entrance. As I rounded the corner the same lady appeared again. She’d obviously come in a complete circle around the quad. This time I smiled properly and asked her if she was lost.

“Emm,” she hesitated. “I’m trying to find someone from the Christian Union… do you know how I would find them?” I was surprised and nodded saying I was actually a member, which seemed quite a fortunate coincidence. She looked relieved and started to explain how her daughter was a student at the university and she wanted us to pray for her. She’d come in especially to ask for us to pray. She told me her daughter’s name and then which course she was on. At which point I took a step back… she was on the same course as me and in my year. The lady reminded me of my own mum, but it wasn’t her very traditional shoes and winter coat, it was something in her face and her eyes that shone out. She was here because her daughter meant so much to her that she had come to find a stranger to pray for her.

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I was quite amazed and moved. The next day I related the story to some of my Christian Union friends. I did pray for her daughter, but without much faith that it would do any good. This student was not someone I could really see myself befriending. I’d told my friends she was a lost cause. She was a wild firecracker who rushed in and out of seminars or lectures, wavy blonde hair flying around her, always in a rush. She cracked loud jokes and boasted about boozy nights out and her current boyfriend’s antics… who from what I could gather was some kind of bank robber. Poor lady, no wonder she wanted us to pray! I kept my distance.

Some months later I was choosing modules for the next two years and found myself in a small tutor group with this same girl and three others. We would have to work together in the coming year on a joint video project, which would form a major part our year’s work… I wasn’t looking forward to it. I felt I was the one in need of prayer now. Somehow the two of us always ended up being thrown together against my choice, but over the coming months I began to see another side to this brash confident student. As we lugged heavy video cameras around south London and I struggled to keep up with her striding pace, or we sat munching eggy rolls in the Union snack bar something thawed between us. We became friends.

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It was this same girl who a few months later hugged and listened and cried with me in the weeks after my mother’s sudden death. Together we crushed giggling into a phone box in deepest Devon to phone respective boyfriends on a summer camping trip with my recently bereaved father. On graduation day we posed for photographs next to each other outside the Albert Hall and then months later she bundled her essential long black skirt into my bag as I headed for Morocco. On the morning of my wedding we sighed as she helped me into my dress and she teased my dad, in a way only she could get away with. This same girl is married to an inner city vicar and has spent her life building a church and seeing amazing miracles of faith and healing. It seems incredible that my meeting with her mother in a university corridor so many years ago turned out to be the start of something I could never imagine. Was that a coincidence? Or was it an answer to prayer? Whatever you think… thank God for mothers who never give up praying for their children.