Hallie French sits at her dining room table at her apartment in Carrboro, N.C. In one hand, she holds a warm cup of tea while the other scrolls through research documents for her honors thesis.
Her cat, Max, lies at her side and purrs along with the humming of her laptop as she types. Max lives with her most of the time and goes with her to visit her husband each weekend, as if he were the child of a divorced couple always moving from place to place.
Down the hall, her roommate, Nicole Vandiford, sends her a political meme. Simultaneously, laughter erupts from the different rooms.
In the summer of 2015, French gets a call from her husband in Iraq. The connection is rough. It’s their first phone call in weeks, and the conversation gets emotional. Now it’s six months after her marriage to Taylor Peele, and the two have never lived together for more than two months.
When he is not deployed, Peele lives in his own apartment in Fayetteville, North Carolina, about 10 minutes from Fort Bragg, where he works as soldier in the U.S. Army.
Peele said the hardest part of his day is “getting up at five in the morning, alone, and coming home at five in the evening to be alone.”
French’s roommate has lived with her longer than her husband ever has. Of the 63 percent of military families that live together, 10 percent of military spouses live on base, according to a report by the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Installations and Environment. French’s situation is unusual. She said many people are surprised to hear she has both a husband and a roommate.
“She’s very independent,” said French’s friend and former U.S. Navy corpsman Jeremy Zollars. “She gets a lot done, and makes very good grades. She has an old-person mindset. She is very mature – she’s not the typical 23-year-old going out and getting smashed every night.”
In 2015, soon after French and Peele were engaged, the Army gave Peele his orders for deployment to Iraq. Duty was calling in less than six months, and French was impatient.
“Our plan was to wait until I finished Carolina,” French said. “That was always our plan.”
But she couldn’t wait to marry her best friend.
One night, French made her roommate sit on her bed while she scrolled through pictures of him on her phone.
“She had puppy dog eyes for hours,” Vandiford said.
“As long as he was there with me, everything was fantastic — I was on cloud nine,” French said. “As soon as he left though, I was like ‘This is ridiculous. What are we doing?’”
French said she felt like Karen on the television series “Californication.” She referenced a quote from the show that she said described her relationship with her fiance when he was gone.
“I don’t even like this guy, this is just some stupid fling,” Karen said. “Then I would open the door, and all of those thoughts would disappear because I’d see your smile, and I was a goner.”
In December, Peele and his unit had been away doing a training exercise in Texas. When he arrived to Fort Bragg, he didn’t know French had convinced his boss to let him leave early. When Peele drove back to Auroa, the couple’s hometown, French surprised him with a trip to New Bern. They drove to New Bern to pick up their marriage certificate before the court house closed for the holidays.
“No, we are not going to the courthouse to get married,” she said in the car. “What kind of woman do you think I am?”
One week later they were married in the mountains in Blowing Rock, N.C.
“We had been engaged for about six or seven months, and I knew she was the girl for me, but it scared me,” Peele said. “It was such a huge step at such a quick pace, but looking back I don’t think I would rather have done it any other way.”
After a simple Google search on military wives, a long list of articles like “How Military Marriage Screws Up Your Career” and “How Long Will Your Military Marriage Last?” show up. The show “Army Wives” exaggerates the stereotype. In the show, the wives cook, clean and take care of the kids, while their husbands are away serving the country. Zollars said most of his friends in the Navy were married to women with this lifestyle.
French’s life doesn’t look like this.
For starters, she kept her maiden name after they got married.
“Changing my name wasn’t going to magically make me love him more,” she said. “We’ve always talked about being individual, well-paired partners, not the same person.”
In his experience, Peele said he has seen wives who struggle being away from their husbands. While French says it is not easy to live apart from her husband, she remains supportive and independent.
“She has been nothing but supportive of my decisions throughout my military career, and that is something you can see take a serious toll on people ,” Peele said.
Zollars and Peele said they have seen how distance ends romantic relationships when civilians leave their significant others in the service, but French keeps herself busy and focuses on school.
French is in 12 credit hours at UNC-Chapel Hill, works at the Center for the Study of the American South and is writing her 40-page honors thesis.
French said gender roles in the military remain traditional. Even so, she strives to be an individual – something she said makes her feel her strong and independent of her husband and marriage.
Zollars said many of his friends’ wives whom he’d met came across as complacent and were unemployed.
Overall, 25 percent of military spouses were unemployed in 2012, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Defense.
“She goes to school and doesn’t complain about my work life,” Peele said. “She understands that I had this job before I had her and that it is very important to me, just as I understand how important her school is for her.”
In comparison to other Army wives she has met, French said she just doesn’t fit in.
When introducing herself to other military couples at a marriage retreat, French said the other women referred to themselves as wives first, then mothers and lastly their individual selves.
“All of the wives (there) were stay-at-home-moms or sold Avon or something,” French said. “I was the only person there that even remotely fit into my category.”
When it was their turn for introductions, she asked her husband to introduce her simply as Hallie, his wife.
There is one thing French has in common with many other military wives – her age. According to the Department of Defense report, 23.5 percent of military spouses are 26 to 30 years old, the largest age-range percentage. Many of military couples are even younger than this, including French and Peele, making up the 21.1 percent of couples who are 25 years old or younger. While their married life isn’t traditional, French and Peele make it work. Even though they’re together, they’ve figured out how to temporarily live separate lives.
“It sucks, but it’s also just the price I pay,” French said .
Before she falls asleep, French sets up her pillows to feel as if her husband sleeps next to her. She texts her husband the nightly reminder that they’re one day closer to the weekend, one day closer to seeing each other.
Correction March 3, 2017 12:35 p.m.: Due to a reporting error, this story has been updated to describe the couple’s hometown as Aurora, N.C. not New Bern, N.C. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Taylor Peele’s name as Jordan Peele and has been changed. An anecdote has been updated to accurately reflect the day the couple got their marriage license and Peele’s role in the U.S. Army has been changed for his protection.