The quiet homefront heroics of a military spouse

By John Kelly
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

They met at a fair in Atlanta, their home town. He was a soldier who'd joined the Army at 16. She was the daughter of a policeman who ran background checks on her boyfriends. He was the first one who passed muster.

When he was posted to North Carolina, he took the train home every other weekend to spend a few hours with her. Then he'd take the train back. When he went off to war, they wrote to each other. When he came back, a veteran of some of the most bitter fighting in World War II, he proposed.

Douglas Dillard married Virginia Hornsby on Feb. 16, 1946. "That started our married military life," said Col. Dillard, U.S. Army, retired.

There's life. There's married life. And then there's married military life. When you marry the uniform, your life is going to be different. Harder, but often richer, too.

"For our honeymoon, we went into Cherokee County up in North Carolina," Col. Dillard said. "We were there for about two or three days, then I had to go back to Fort Bragg and report for duty. It was kind of a short honeymoon, but a very enjoyable one."

In 1950, the Korean War broke out. She went back to Atlanta. He went back to war.

"We talked about the fact that there's a lot of things that can happen, a lot of bad things," he said of a soldier's life. "Hopefully, the good Lord's going to take care of you. We just kind of rationalized it that way. That's how it's going to be, and you have to either accept it or not."

He came back from Korea and was posted to Maryland. They had two children by then.

"Army kids adjust pretty fast," he said. "They're forced to adjust to a new environment. They really need to make friends. . . . She kept them busy. I think that helped to shape their character a lot. Most Army wives are that way. I shouldn't say 'Army,' I should say 'service' wives. If the marriage sticks, you know they're devoted and not hindered by little petty things."

Virginia and her growing family followed him to Germany, to Georgia, to California, to Hawaii -- every few years a new home, new friends, new challenges.

"She was tough-minded. When she wanted to do something, she was determined to do it."

She became adept at navigating foreign surroundings, at cutting through red tape, at being an officer's wife. There were four daughters in all: Cindy, Douglass Lynne, Cheryl and Michelle. Virginia became active in Girl Scouts.

"She was neighborhood chairman for the Munich area," he said. "She did so well that when Lady Baden-Powell came on a visit, Virginia was invited to meet her at the airport."

In Germany, he bought an old VW camper, and the family traveled to every West European country but Portugal.

His next war was Vietnam. He made a point of talking to her by radio phone once or twice a week. After U.S. troops had left that country but before it fell to the Viet Cong, she met him in Saigon.

"The Vietnamese rallied all the Girls Scout and took a picture in a park near Saigon -- 500 Vietnamese Girl Scouts singing all the Girl Scout songs. She thoroughly enjoyed that."

He was posted to the Pentagon. They bought a house in Bowie. He retired. For him, there would be no more wars.

A few years ago, Virginia got sick. A heart attack, then breathing problems. She had trouble speaking, but her eyes told him that she didn't want to go into a nursing home. So after months of rehab, he brought her back to Bowie.

He learned to operate and clean the ventilator that helped her breathe. He bought a van with a ramp so he could roll her wheelchair aboard. He tried to take her for a drive every day, just to get her out of the house.

"He would look at her and she would look at him," said their daughter Cindy, "and he would tap her cheek and just say 'my sweetheart,' and you could just see the connection, the love, just running from eye to eye, back and forth."

On Oct. 14, Col. Douglas Dillard laid Virginia Hornsby Dillard, his wife of 63 years, to rest in grave site 1154, Section 31, of Arlington National Cemetery. When his time comes, he'll be buried there, too.

Arlington is full of heroes. Not all of them wore uniforms.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company