News: Staying connected 6,000 miles apart
Story by Sgt. Kissta DiGregorio
RAMADI, Iraq – Driving down I-40 in Chapel Hill, N.C., Julia and her sister noticed two attractive men in the vehicle following them. Julia slowed the car to about 35 miles per hour, forcing the men to pass. The driver, a hard-as-nails Marine, flexed his huge biceps in her direction. She knew then and there that she had to meet him, so she scribbled a note on a piece of paper she found on the floorboards, asking him to follow her.
Or, at least that’s how Charles tells the story.
“It’s because I’m so good lookin’,” he said jokingly.
Spc. Charles Stephens, a communications specialist, has been married to Julia for more than six years. Originally from Rogersville, Tenn., he was stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., when he was serving in the Marine Corps. Julia, born and raised in Bad Nauheim, Germany, lived in Chapel Hill at the time.
“We almost wrecked,” Sgt. Julia Stephens, a terrain analyst, said of that fateful day on the highway. Although writing notes while driving at high speeds isn’t a safe combination, that day it worked out for the best.
Charles separated from the Corps shortly after the two were married. But after the birth of their first child, Julia decided it was her turn to serve and joined the Army. Charles had no intention of re-entering the military until he saw how much Julia was enjoying her experience, and decided to join her in service.
The happy couple, both assigned to Headquarters Company, 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, is currently deployed to Camp Ramadi, Iraq, in support of Operation New Dawn. Although the Stephens’ have each other, their two young children, Maximus, 5, and Avalon, 1, are staying with Julia’s parents in Chapel Hill during their absence.
“We know that they’re being taken care of,” Charles said with a downcast look. “But the hardest thing is seeing how it affects my wife.”
Max’s birthday was July 22, and Avalon is starting to talk, Julia said. Missing special moments like these is hard on them both, but having each other’s support makes all the difference.
“It’s good to have each other here,” Julia said. “He knows all the right things to say.”
To ease the pain of having both parents gone, Julia videotapes pieces of their everyday routine in Iraq, and posts the footage online for her children to watch. She’s always filmed video of her family, but shortly before deploying she got the idea to post them online.
“Most shows that depict military life are negative,” she said, but she believes their marriage sets a better example of what being a dual-military family is really like.
Although they are stationed at the same camp and share living quarters, working different shifts reduces the amount of time they are able to spend together, and makes it challenging to get footage of them both for the weekly video.
“This was all her idea. I’m just the background guy,” Charles said of his role in the process.
As the videographer, Julia tapes and narrates most scenes, as well as edits and posts the completed videos. Most of the videos are of her going about day-to-day life and the interesting things that happen, like “snake attacks” and accidentally drinking expired apple juice. “Sometimes I don’t know what to do, so I improvise,” she said.
But for some videos, Charles steps out from the background, which makes for some of Julia’s favorite footage. “I always feel weird doing it by myself,” she said. “He’s the entertainer. He’s the fun part of the video.”
He adds excitement by performing magic tricks, singing and interviewing Julia when she’s trying to sleep. “I just like to annoy her when she’s doing her thing,” he said.
But when the two of them are together, it becomes clear as to why their marriage can withstand the hardships of deployment and being separated from their children. Their chemistry is apparent as the couple makes the best of a heart-wrenching situation. In one scene, Julia is talking to the camera about nothing in particular when she turns the corner and sees Charles. Her face immediately lights up, and Charles waves to her from afar until she is by his side.
Obviously, not much has changed since that day on the interstate.
The Stephens’ videos can be viewed on Julia’s YouTube page at http://www.youtube.com/user/JuliaRobine.