From Georgia to Germany
to South Korea
to Saudi Arabia,
it was a love where distance was irrelevant.
Do you ever reflect on a decision you made and realize it unknowingly changed the direction of your entire life? 1950 was that year for me. Fresh out of high school, I was working and restlessly still living with my parents in Daytona Beach, Florida. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my parents. I was born in 1931 and was one of the four children that they brought up through The Great Depression. But when you become an adult, you want to carve your own path.
By 1950, I was ready to start my own life, but I was not sure how to begin.
The push I needed came when Mom received word that her sister was ill. I quit my job, packed my bags, and left for Ohio to help. Unfortunately, my aunt was too sick to recover and after a couple months, she parted ways with the world. On the way back to Florida, Mom and I stopped at Fort Benning to visit Dorothy, my older sister who was working at a military station. My mom could tell that I needed a change and spoke with Dorothy about me staying in Fort Benning with her. Dorothy was thrilled to take me in. Everything was going well. Shortly after, I took my civil service test and began working in the Ranger Department office in 1951.
That’s where I met Jim Dugan, a tall specimen of a man, an ex-military man with a firm jaw and gentle eyes. He worked as a ranger instructor and would come in and out every day to sign the time sheet. One morning, I showed up at work and found a vase filled with handpicked violets on my desk. I was baffled by my secret admirer until a fellow ranger spilled the beans that Jim picked them during their morning run. The image of the strong, stern instructor picking violets in between barking orders was humorous, to say the least, and I decided he might be worth giving a chance.
Everything seemed to fall into place after that. It wasn’t “head over heels” or “love at first sight.” We were a budding blossom. A combination of time and patience, nurtured into something more beautiful than I could have imagined at the time. We knew what we wanted in life and figured out we wanted it with each other within a year. There were no grand gestures or public displays of affection when Jim proposed. In fact, it was more of a practical discussion. His discharge date was fast approaching and he’d be off to Ohio where a steel mill position was open. There weren’t a lot of job opportunities those days for veterans, so he took what he could get. I was 21, in love and ready to take on the world with him. And so, we held a small ceremony in the Fort Benning Chapel and set our sights on the future.
Ohio. Memories of a frigid winter and my deceased aunt flashed through my mind. This Florida girl wasn’t sure about Ohio, but she knew she loved the man that brought her back to this place. I leaned into that feeling.
However, Ohio was short-lived. Jim never had a passion for the steel mill industry. In 1954, as the storm of the Vietnam War brewed, Jim re-enlisted and we moved wherever he was needed. Whether it was Pennsylvania or Georgia, I followed. As more soldiers were sent overseas, I continued to count my blessings each day that Jim remained with us. We’d welcomed two daughters into our lives by the time Jim graduated from his officer training program and received orders to report to an American station in Germany in 1956. Thankful that it wasn’t Vietnam, I packed up our two girls and embarked on the next adventure.
While my husband was serving, I was at home taking care of our growing family. In the three years we spent in Germany, our family grew and gave us two boys. We returned to Florida where Jim continued building his career while I looked after our little ones.
Then, orders came for Jim to go overseas again, a year in South Korea. We moved back to Georgia, bought our first house, and he kissed our four children and me goodbye. I worked at the ranger’s office and took care of our children. It was exhausting, but as an army wife, caring for our kids was my order, so to speak, and I followed it with due diligence. There were times I worried that repeatedly moving would negatively affect our children, but much like me, they were adaptive. I think they were grateful to have their fearless father to look up to. Our family learned to count blessings not burdens.
A year later, Jim returned and we spent several years together as a family until the day came when he received orders overseas once more; this time for a year as an advisor for the Vietnam army right in the action. I remember my stomach doing flips just thinking about it. Soon after, I also learned that my stomach was flipping for more reasons — I was pregnant with our third daughter!
We bought our new home in Orlando where the kids and I lived while Jim left for Vietnam in 1966. He was able to support us while overseas, allowing me to focus my energy on our children rather than juggling a job while raising them alone. He was in the middle of a war, thousands of miles away, when I went into labor. I told my neighbor and drove myself to the hospital.
By January 1967, Ellen had made her debut thus completing our family. I remember feeling whole, yet divided at the same time. Jim wasn’t there to share the joy with me, which was heartbreaking. He had been gone many times before, but this time truly tested my resilience. Can I hold together a family of five kids by myself? Will loneliness finally grab hold of me?
I fought these doubts in my head and reached out to a group of army wives in the area. I met with them several times a month and they gave me a place to vent while also cheering me up. They kept me smiling in the moments I felt overwhelmed, alone, or afraid. Every day, I heard a new story about someone becoming a prisoner of war, losing a limb or worse. Focusing on gratitude kept fear of the unknown at bay. As an army wife, you stayed strong, remained self-sufficient, and followed orders. And I was damn good at my job.
Over the next few years, Jim returned and was deployed to Vietnam again before he asked to be discharged to begin civilian life in the early 1970s. After 21 years of service, Jim was ready to be home. Of course, we were all ready for that! He fell back into family life without a hitch. Finally, I felt complete again. All the distance, all the moves, all the “I miss you” letters were over. Or so I thought.
However, the comfort was taken away too soon. When Jim received a job opportunity as an advisor in Saudi Arabia for three years, I found myself faced with a long-distance marriage again. While it wasn’t easy, ultimately, I was his wife and I loved him. What else could I do but support his decision? I wasn’t about to get in the way of his dreams.
I knew this time we wouldn’t follow him. The kids were in school. Their lives were here. I knew better than to disrupt that. I’d been apart from him many times before, and I could do it again. By this point, I knew our love could endure any distance.
Just when I thought our time apart was maybe finally coming to an end, Jim received a promotion upon his return…in San Antonio, Texas. I figured I could handle being apart from him for a few more years, so I stayed in Florida. What was only supposed to last a couple years dragged on until Jim’s retirement in the early 1990s. I know that was crazy, but that was just us. But our love was real.
We were professionals by that point. He visited during the holidays, the children and I would visit with the grandchildren any chance we could. Distance didn’t faze us and certainly couldn’t break us. We didn’t see it as a barrier. It just made us appreciate our time together even more.
Jim came home for good (actually for good this time) in the early 1990s, five children and thirteen grandchildren later. When we could finally be together, life was a bliss. For the next 20 years, we made up for lost time, doing things like taking vacations together.
In 2009, Jim unfortunately died of natural causes. Although it felt like losing him just as I got him back, I was not lost. All those years on my own, I never fell apart and I wasn’t about to after he died. Sometimes it still feels like he didn’t die and that he’s simply on a long deployment. I like to think that he’s spreading his goodness up in heaven.
People often ask me what is the secret to a healthy marriage. Don’t they know what a difficult question that is? There is no clear answer because people and relationships are unique. For us, two main aspects made all the difference; interdependence and mutual respect. We supported each other but did not find our identity in the other person. I was a wife but also a mother, bill manager, and devoted friend. Jim was a husband but also a father, officer, and ranger. We were whole individuals who loved each other completely.
Our story isn’t dramatic. I was never one for drama. Drama during times of war meant rationing, tragedy, and death. We escaped drama during a chaotic time, a true rarity. There’s no sad ending. There’s no climatic moment of self-realization. It isn’t fiery or filled with passion, rage or infatuation. Ours is a story of incremental and continuous love. We simply didn’t allow limitations to exist. Distance never weakened our love. It only made it stronger. It was true and authentic. The kind of love that can move mountains.
This is the story of Betty Dugan
Betty is the widow of Jim Orville Dugan, a retired Officer in the United States army that served during the Korean and Vietnam wars. She raised their five children during his time in the military and continued to do so once he began working as an advisor overseas for the Saudi Reserves. Jim and Betty celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2002 and his official retirement in 2004. They moved to a retired military community in Melbourne, Florida where Jim died of natural causes in 2009. They were married for 58 years. Betty is thriving and will be 87 years young this year. She is remarkably humble yet open about her life experiences. She enjoys deep belly laughs, Olive Garden lunch dates, snuggles with great grand babies and the beauty of each and every day.
Life Log #250
This story first touched our hearts on January 18, 2019.
Are you a writer? Interested in sharing a space with other writers? Send a request to join our Facebook Writers Group