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The hardest months of my life

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Dakota Raub and her husband, Gerardo Verdugo, stand outside their home on Patrick Space Force Base, Fla., December 2, 2021. Raub and her husband moved to Patrick SFB in March of 2021 for her first duty assignment. (U.S. Space Force photo by Airman 1st Class Thomas Sjoberg)

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Dakota Raub and her husband, Gerardo Verdugo, stand outside their home on Patrick Space Force Base, Fla., December 2, 2021. Raub and her husband moved to Patrick SFB in March of 2021 for her first duty assignment. (U.S. Space Force photo by Airman 1st Class Thomas Sjoberg)

Then, U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Gerardo Verdugo, fixed-wing crew chief, walks towards a tram on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., July 25, 2016. Verdugo deployed in support of the Special Purpose Marine Ground Task Force. (U.S. Space Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dakota Raub)

Then, U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Gerardo Verdugo, fixed-wing crew chief, walks towards a tram on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., July 25, 2016. Verdugo deployed in support of the Special Purpose Marine Ground Task Force. (U.S. Space Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dakota Raub)

U.S. Marines sit inside a tram on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., July 25, 2016. The Marines deployed in support of the Special Purpose Marine Ground Task Force. (U.S. Space Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dakota Raub)

U.S. Marines sit inside a tram on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., July 25, 2016. The Marines deployed in support of the Special Purpose Marine Ground Task Force. (U.S. Space Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dakota Raub)

PATRICK SPACE FORCE BASE, Fla. --

I stood next to my husband in front of his squadron’s hangar at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego in July of 2016. That was the first time I saw him dressed in his desert cammies. 

Huge green duffle bags lined the sidewalks. Families lined the street for what seemed like half a mile. We all anxiously waited for the tram to pick up our Marines and transport them to the airport for their journey to the other side of the world.

I couldn’t believe my husband was about to leave. We were 19 years old, recently married, and had just moved to California. It was hard leaving my parents, but with him by my side, I was optimistic. But there I stood, waiting to say goodbye to my best friend for seven months. 

The tram pulled up. I was so anxious at this point. My heart was racing. I did not want him to leave. 

The Marines piled their bags onto the tram, and shortly after, climbed inside themselves.

I hugged my husband so tight because I knew I would not see him for a long time. 

“It’s okay,” he whispered softly into my ear. 

He turned and I watched him walk away and take a seat facing me on the tram. He wore big black sunglasses to hide his tears. I tried so hard to hold back mine. It felt weird to cry in front of strangers, but I could feel my eyes watering up. I wanted to be strong for my husband. I did not want him to see me cry. 

The tram drove away and I watched until I couldn't see it anymore. As soon as it left my vision, I bolted to the car and wept. I could no longer control the emotions I was holding in. It felt like everything came crashing down on me. After 10 minutes, I drove home, sobbing the entire way.

The next few days felt weird being alone in the house. I took on maintaining our home by myself. I also managed the bills, tended to the cars, and cared for our new puppy. All things we did together. Cooking for one person also proved to be a major challenge. I would make fettuccine Alfredo and have leftovers for weeks. No matter how small I tried to cut the recipe, there would always be a ton left-over. I felt like I was wasting so much food because I could not eat it all on my own. 

Mentally, it was difficult knowing I was responsible for everything. Despite this, I did not want to just wait for my husband to return. I wanted to be bold, learn new things, and really live my life.

I enrolled in community college. At first, it felt a little overwhelming attending a school I knew nothing about. After a while though, I made friends and really enjoyed spending my days learning. Being a full-time student took much of my time, which normally would not seem like a big deal, but in my case, it was. 

The weekends were the worst for me. I did not have a class or any close friends I hung out with outside of school. I was alone for two days straight four times a month. Eventually, I filled my time with craft projects, meal prepping, and an occasional Netflix binge. 

I also spent the holidays with my family. I drove up to visit my uncle in Los Angeles for Thanksgiving and flew to Texas to spend Christmas and New Year’s with my siblings. While it was great to spend this time with family, I missed my other half. Thankfully, we were able to connect through video calls almost every day.

By January of 2017, about six months after my husband left, I had a stable routine and although I missed my husband, I was thriving. I started my next semester at the community college, exercised regularly, managed all the finances, did all the shopping, maintained our home and even potty-trained our puppy. 

January felt like the longest month of my life. My husband was coming home in February, which seemed so close, but so far away. I hoped he would be home for Valentine's Day since we missed celebrating his birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and our first wedding anniversary together.

He made it home just before Valentine’s Day. 

The giant bus filled with Marines pulled up around midnight on a foggy airfield. We all anxiously waited for them to pile off. 

One by one they started coming down the bus steps and although it was very dark and hard to see, I saw him immediately. We ran to one another and embraced. He wrapped his arms around me and held me so tight. 

“Hi,” we said shyly to one another.

Both of us were speechless but happier than ever. I had my husband and best friend back.

His homecoming was the best, most exciting, and memorable day of my life. Seeing him after about seven months was weird and amazing at the same time. 

I also did not think that deployment would change me as much as it did. 

Here is what I learned after getting married at 19, being left in a city alone and having to figure things out for myself:

  1. Getting out and doing things was the best thing for me. Going to school, networking, and seeing other humans, which at times may have been uncomfortable, was key to my mental health. 

 

  1. In the beginning, I told myself over and over that I couldn’t do “this.”  I couldn’t be alone. I couldn’t face my first plunge into adulthood alone. But, after months of getting up every day and pushing myself, I learned I could. I realized I was stronger than I thought. I went from a sobbing young girl to a strong independent woman. 

 

  1. There is support everywhere. I had amazing neighbors who passed out candy with me on Halloween. I had a family to spend holidays with. I had other spouses to talk to that were going through the same things as me. I thought I was going to be completely alone for seven months but I wasn’t. 

 

  1. Problem solving. I knew how to problem solve, but as an adult, it was entirely different. Every day brought new problems, many of which I had to solve on my own. By the end of the deployment, I was confident that I could take on anything. 

 

  1. It is still impossible to cook for one.

Six years later, we are still happily married and have grown and come so far together. There were more deployments after that, and I decided to join the U.S. Air Force in July of 2020. 

If I ever find myself faced with a challenge that seems impossible, I always remember that 19-year-old girl. She was alone and crying in a car thinking she couldn’t do this, but she did. She thrived and became someone she never thought she could be. 

Those seven months showed me anything is possible — well, almost anything.