By Steve Stark
Editor’s Note: The Army family—a way of life and a core foundation of what makes our Army strong. As the holiday season is upon us, it’s fitting for Access AL&T to share just one of the many Army family stories within our AL&T community that most, if not all Army families can relate to. Happy holidays.
Sean and Yolanda Friendly’s marriage is an Army marriage—the Army brought them together and, now and again, it’s kept them apart.
In 1990, while stationed in Korea, Yolanda got a flu shot from young medic. For her, the flu shot wasn’t particularly memorable. For the young medic—Sean Friendly—however, it was a pretty big deal.
After he gave her that flu shot, she kept hearing from other friends that there was a young man who was interested in her. She didn’t remember him.
Sometime later, they and a group of friends went out for noodles—yakisoba—and afterward, Sean walked her home. According to Yolanda, he gave her something of an ultimatum: He told her he wanted her to be his girlfriend. Yolanda wasn’t in so much of a hurry. He gave her a week to decide.
In his own defense, Sean said, “Let me start off by saying that I was 22, probably.” He figured he had “about a 75 to 80 percent chance she was going to say yes, but there was a chance, because of how she was—she’s very, very strict—so there was a chance that she could have come back and said, ‘I just can’t because I’m getting ready to deploy, or that she just wanted to be friends.” But, he was so crazy about her, if she had said no, “I wasn’t going to stop, but I would’ve had to come up with some other plan.” He didn’t have to make another plan. Yolanda agreed.
Yolanda and Sean like to joke that before they were married, “We dated for three years, and then we dated for three more” after they were married. That was because the two were stationed apart both during their courtship and for the first part of their marriage.
“He was a medic, and I was in supply, a ‘loggy’,” Yolanda’s term for logistician. “We did the Army Married Couples Program, but they always said…” Here, Sean took up the thread. “…since we were already apart, we can’t put you guys together until your next duty station, and that’s how we ended up in Korea again.”
But the Army’s idea of “together” and their idea were slightly different. In the Army sense, they were together. “We were together in the same country,” Sean said, laughing. “We were just in different places in the country.”
At the time, they were both enlisted, but Sean got a Green to Gold scholarship to go to college, “so basically, I got stuck in Korea by myself while he went to college,” Yolanda said. And then she was selected “to go warrant officer, so I came back to go to training, and we were married, but still living apart” back in the States.
Sean was a full-time student at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., which meant his status changed to inactive reserve, while Yolanda was on active duty. When Yolanda made warrant officer, she ended up in Fort Polk, La. Meanwhile, Sean was still studying for his degree in Virginia.
TOGETHER AT LAST — SORT OF
Then, Yolanda said, “We got pregnant over the summer with our oldest, and that was the blessing.” Their first daughter was born in 1996. “When she was born, I spoke with my branch manager,” Yolanda said. “I told him about the hardship of being apart and how expensive it was to keep two households. He’s in college, I am in Louisiana with the baby. So, I got stationed at Fort Eustis within 30 days.”
But things were just a little bit more complicated than that, Sean said. “So she comes back to Fort Eustis, has the baby,” and then, he continued, “she leaves. I’m with the baby, in college, for six months.”
When Yolanda was back at Fort Polk, Sean was looking for child care for their daughter. As any parent can attest, having a child can change your financial outlook. During the time that Sean was a student, he was not earning military pay, although the military was paying for his education. Yolanda having made warrant officer, he said, helped close the financial delta.
At last, in the summer of 1996, they were finally together when Yolanda was transferred to Fort Eustis. It was the first time in three years of marriage that they were—more or less permanently—under the same roof. Then they went back to Korea.
BACK TO KOREA
Back in Korea, where Sean was stationed, he could have family with him; Yolanda couldn’t. So again, Sean was a part-time, single parent.
Military families face different difficulties than those faced by an average family with two earners, especially when both spouses are on active duty. But the Friendlys had something other dual-military couples don’t—a blessing called Mom. Yolanda’s mom.
“I think about how difficult it would have been in terms of peace of mind, long days for him, long days for me, and both kids in day care,” said Yolanda “But my mom came over and stayed with us, so she was the caretaker for our first daughter from the age of two.”
A LONG ARMY CAREER
You can tell that Yolanda has been working with the Army for a long time when she refers to their second and third children as the “follow-on babies.” In fact, Yolanda Friendly has been working for the government, first as a Soldier, now as a contractor, for her entire adult life. She joined the Army straight out of high school. A good student—she graduated ninth in her class from high school—Yolanda wanted to go to college, but she thought that scholarships would be difficult because she was not a U.S. citizen.
“I knew that if I stayed home, it was going to be a burden on the family. We were low-income, in government housing, and on food stamps, so I knew there was no way my mom could afford college. So I said, ‘military.’ I went to the recruiter and did all my testing, and got the college funding on top of my GI Bill.”
“I started my [Army] paperwork and got sworn [as a citizen] on the second of July right before I went off to basic training.” Yolanda’s heritage is Mexican, and her stature is petite, “I’m only about 4’ 11” on a good day,” she joked.
Her mom, she said, was understandably concerned about her daughter joining the military, but it turned out to be a perfect fit for Yolanda. And, when her mom came to Korea to help take care of their daughter, Yolanda said that was a perfect fit, too.
“The Korean culture is very much like to the Mexican culture—family, kids, the values of the culture,” Yolanda said. “I really thought she was going to have a traumatic experience when we all went there, but it turned out that she loved it. We were there for two years.”
Having mom around was priceless, Yolanda and Sean agreed. “As difficult as it could be, Sean could do his job and I could do my job knowing that mom was at home with the girls,” said Yolanda. “Honestly, I think that’s why I stayed in [the Army] long enough to retire. When you have the peace of mind that family is taken care of, then you can focus on your job.”
Before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, the Friendlys were stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, finally “under the same roof” on a more or less permanent basis, Sean said. “The whole post was bubbling with the idea that someone might be going. We got a warning order in December  before the holidays that something may be happening. ‘Enjoy Christmas, you guys may be going.’ In January, they told us we had to start planning.”
The uncertainty about Sean or Yolanda’s deployment was tempered by the presence of Yolanda’s mother, who had helped care for the couple’s children since Korea. For Sean, her presence was a significant positive
Sean deployed to Iraq in early 2003. By then, he had earned his degree and was an environmental scientist. “I went as the preventative medicine planner for the theater,” he said. When the Army moves into a new theater of operations, Sean explained, force protection involves more than just roadside bombs or enemy fire. It includes protecting “Soldiers from soil, water, air, and all the different things that are out there.” He returned from his deployment in November 2003. Shortly thereafter, it was Yolanda’s turn.
A FAMILY PLAN
“We had a solid family care plan,” Sean said. “We had mom. There was no war cycle when mom came to live with us. We knew that as military officers, as leaders, we had to have a care plan for our kids. We had a solid plan before the Army required it because of a war. But what we didn’t have was a mother-in-law that knew what to do when none of us were there. That was a big part of it. Teaching her about Tri-Care and all that stuff. If she had to take over, she could do it. That’s what we worked on at the end of 2002, the beginning of 2003.”
Yolanda cut in, “What if something happened? She has to take the girls. Here’s all the papers and so you have to plan as a family.” In fact, Sean, Yolanda, her mom and their kids drilled their family plan. “You have to,” Sean said.
AN ARMY-STRONG MARRIAGE
In a way, Yolanda said, the Army has strengthened their marriage. Sean agreed, saying, “We had to come up with protective measures to protect our relationship.” Not just from being apart, but also from the occasionally macho culture, the stress of deployment, or the stresses of being a in a dual-military relationship.
“Early on,” Sean said, “we found a great church.” He said that they found the values of their Christian faith to parallel their military values. Honor, duty, respect—those personal values were important above and beyond being simple military values. “For me,” he said, “that’s kind of how I’ve been able to protect my marriage.”
For Sean, faith provides “a standard that you can always go back to.” The Army, he said, has its standards—a contract between the service, commanders, and Soldiers that outlines the duties and responsibilities of each. In a sense, he said, his religion parallels that. “There’s a standard of how we are supposed to act and respect each other and treat each other in the world. There’s an assurance, and, kind of, a peace with that,” he said.
Both Sean and Yolanda say that church is a very important part of their lives and their marriage. For me, she said, “I think that’s what’s kept us humble. And of course it’s always about forgiveness.” Her faith makes it clear that “I’m responsible and I’m held accountable for making it right.” Sean added, “There’s a physiological thing that occurs when you forgive, and when you go through the forgiveness process.”
Yolanda finally did get an education. Her associate’s degree, she said, “was a tough one.” That’s because she was pregnant at the time and needed the degree prior to going before her Chief Warrant Officer 3 promotion board.
“One of my professors said, ‘You don’t take the final, you get an incomplete.’ And so I gave birth on a Wednesday. On Monday, I was taking my finals,” said Yolanda. She got the degree, but while her peers were working on their master’s, or their second master’s, their second bachelor’s, “I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t see putting my family on the side. Being that the days were long already because of deployments and the whole preparation situation, I could not see it.”
Sean’s field requires him to have a master’s. Yolanda told him “You got accepted for long-term schooling, you’ve got to go do your master’s.” He now has a master’s in public health.
“So we made a conscious decision,” Yolanda continued. “You want to keep your family, or you want your career? I already had a career with the military,” she said, and she could not see paying the costs—financial and otherwise—of continuing her education while their daughters were little. “I said, ‘School is going to have to wait. I’ll do my job and let the job I do speak for itself. If the promotions come, good, if they don’t, then it wasn’t meant to be.’ ”
So, to recap, the Friendlys met in Korea, got married in Virginia, went back to Korea but in different places, came back to the United States, Sean in Virginia, Yolanda in Louisiana, were finally united in Virginia—and then went back to Korea, again in different places. Then they both went to Fort Hood, and are both now in the Washington, D.C. area. Their Army of two is now an Army of five, and now more than ever, they are still very much Army Strong.