Life in the Military: Tying the knot on short notice

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two part series about local families and their loved ones presently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

BROTHERS AT THE FRONT — Nathan (left) and Ryan Dougherty of Bridgton are presently stationed in Afghanistan.

Chelsey Dougherty wasn’t one of those young girls who envisioned exactly how her wedding day would unfold.

“The only detail I had picked out was that I wanted Gerber daisies and sunflowers as part of the décor,” she said.

When a loved one is a member of the U.S. military, expect the unexpected.

After serving two tours in Iraq, U.S Army Captain Ryan Dougherty of Bridgton was told by military officials that he could be deployed to “another part of the world,” but the assignment would not be Afghanistan.

While attending a briefing in the spring for staff and spouses regarding upcoming training, a commanding officer entered the room and informed Ryan and his fiancée that the power-point presentation had been canceled, and the unit had been selected to leave on short notice for a 12- month stay in Afghanistan.

“It was stunning news, as going to Afghanistan was not even on their radar as a possibility for their unit,” said Ryan’s mother, Laurie Dougherty of Bridgton.

Chelsey had just one order to give Ryan.

“I told him he couldn’t go until we were married. He had no problem with it, and he was glad I felt the same way, too,” Chelsey said. “We haven’t had much time together during the last six years, so I didn’t want to be apart from him without being married.”

The couple became engaged last December when Ryan proposed during a Christmas military ball at Fort Bragg. Now, they were on the clock to plan the biggest day of their lives.

“There was a flurry of phone calls between North Carolina and Maine to both families to try to put together a plan. People — from a photographer to the reception site — we contacted to pull together wedding plans were so gracious and accommodating when they heard the circumstances,” Laurie Dougherty said. “Thankfully, the military is really good about getting soldiers home for a visit before deployments.”

Ryan and Chelsey (Ledue) Dougherty (Photo by Spring Smith)

Planning the big day wasn’t the hard part, Chelsey said. Nailing down the day when they could return to Maine was the big unknown.

“Typical Army experience. We didn’t have an exact time that Ryan would be allowed to travel before he left, so it was a guessing game until about five days before we tied the knot. I did get extremely lucky to find a nice dress on-line. It shipped on time and it fit! We ended up with red and white roses to go with the color I chose for my bridesmaid dresses — an apple red, the same color as the dress that I was wearing the night Ryan proposed,” Chelsey said. “The fact that we kept most things simple really helped.”

Chelsey’s mom made a wedding cheesecake, while Laurie decorated a local pub where the reception would be held. Chelsey, meanwhile, created her own bouquet and fixed her own hair.

The ceremony was “intimate” with 12 immediate family members present. The couple tried to “skype” the ceremony to Ryan’s brother, Nathan, who is serving in Afghanistan, but the connection failed. To include Nathan in spirit, Ryan pinned a medallion in his breast pocket that Nathan had sent his mother inside an Easter card. Ryan’s dad, Tom, was able to view the wedding via his computer from his residence in Florida.

Despite the rush, the couple found their wedding quite magical.

“I am glad it unfolded this way. The intimate setting with our family was more than we could have asked for,” she said. “Our parents and grandparents really like the way things turned out, and most of our guests and Ryan left saying that ‘every wedding should be like this.’”

After a few more days in Maine, the couple headed to Florida to spend time with Ryan’s dad.

Then, it was time to for Ryan to deploy.

And, it was time for the new Mrs. Dougherty to adjust to military life.

“Hurry up and wait” becomes a lifestyle when you are a military spouse, Chelsey said.

“Planning things can be very hard, as it was with the wedding. You learn to roll with the punches. A single day is not hard to get through most of the time, but I have to be careful not to look too far forward or backward in time. That’s when I realize how hard it is. I do look forward, very much, to having Ryan back,” Chelsey said.

She has found some relief and support by returning home to stay with her family in Scarborough while Ryan is abroad.

“It’s certainly not what I pictured my first year of marriage would be like. I’m just glad that we decided to say our vows before he left,” she said. “Ryan and I are able to e-mail on a regular basis. We have one phone call a week, and one ‘skype’ date per week.”

Ryan is an Acting Information Officer, which “keeps him stationary.”

“I don’t let myself stress out when he does leave the base to run a mission or travel. It degrades your quality of life if you’re living in fear of what might happen halfway across the world,” she said.

Both of Chelsey’s grandfathers were military men, but neither were in the service when they started their families.

“This is a new horizon for me,” she said.

When loneliness overwhelms Chelsey, she either calls or spends the night at her mother-in-law’s house.

“When she misses Ryan a little too much, Chelsey has come and spent the night at my house so she can sleep in his old bedroom with all his childhood and college ‘stuff’ surrounding her,” said Laurie Dougherty, noting the couple met during their time at the University of Maine at Orono.

For Laurie Dougherty, seeing both her sons in uniform and serving in Afghanistan at the same time is something she too never would have imagined.

“I never dreamed I would be the mother of two soldiers. My children never even received guns for Christmas. I believe in ‘Peace on earth, good will toward men.’ Now, my sons are fully armed,” she said. “One thing I’ve learned, even though they may look armed and dangerous, they have to carry those weapons with them not only if they’re out on patrol, but when going to the mess hall, doing their laundry or going to pick up their mail. It’s taken me time to get used to seeing pictures of them when they’re armed. But, that’s their training.”

Both sons tell their mother how their efforts are making a difference for the Afghan people.

“These stories aren’t always given air time on the news,” she said. “Know that makes me proud and grateful my sons are in a position to help others.”

Communication with the boys is unpredictable. Laurie will receive short e-mails simply saying, “I’m okay if you’ve heard anything” — in regards to attacks. Laurie never knows when Nathan or Ryan will call, but she has learned two important lessons. One, she starts with, “I love you,” in case the call cuts off. “Sometimes, the phone will cut out four or five times, so they have to keep calling me back to try to get a better connection,” she said.

Two, she has a list of things she wants to ask so her “mind doesn’t go blank in the excitement of getting a call.”

As one might expect, Laurie finds herself riding an emotional rollercoaster, from time to time. For example, while making plans for Ryan’s wedding, Laurie received word that a suicide bomber had killed five people in Nathan’s unit.

“One moment, I would be on the phone making wedding plans, and the next moment, I would be on the computer trying to find the right words to give support to Nathan,” Laurie said. “When there is a casualty, there is a memorial service held right there. It is gut wrenching. Not only did Nathan attend that, he had the additional responsibility of putting the caskets of his buddies onto the plane to get them back to the USA so they would be stateside by the time the families had been notified. My heart broke from him. The anguish can be profound.”

When an incident occurs, Laurie finds herself peering close to the TV video to see if she can spot her son’s face.

“Sometimes, I can’t get enough of the news, and other times I just have to shut it off. My reality is that every day is a great day unless a military car drives up my driveway,” she said. “One thing I know is that the future is out of my hands. I lost my first-born daughter in my 20s. That gave me the insight to value the ‘here and now.’ We don’t know what tomorrow may bring, and worrying doesn’t change a thing. I try not to dwell on the ‘what ifs.’ Instead, I try to choose to invest my energy in making a positive difference in those lives that I cross paths with. I am blessed to have a supportive family, friends and co-workers, and a church family that helps me and sends care packages to my sons.”

Together, Laurie and Chelsey will lean on each other until Ryan (and Nathan) return home safely.

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