22 years in: The marriage of Jacey Eckhart and Brad Skillman

Shiver me timbers: Skillman and Eckhart during last month's snow.
Shiver me timbers: Skillman and Eckhart during last month's snow.
By Kathleen Hom
Sunday, January 10, 2010

Jacey Eckhart was fed up. It was 1995 and her career-Navy husband had been away from his family 87 percent of the time during their first year stationed in Sasebo, Japan. So she brought a red bathing suit and a binder full of articles on a vacation to Phuket, Thailand, determined to convince Brad Skillman he could get a better job. Problem was, he didn't want another one.

Eckhart remembers thinking: "I can't be the one that sticks him in a cubicle, that makes him less than what he is."

It was a surprise to her that the Navy was a huge part of Skillman's identity. The two had met nine years prior when a 22-year-old Skillman sat next to Eckhart at a Navy-Indiana University football game. "We were so ugly that day," Eckhart says. "You can't expect to look that good when you've spent the last night partying." Nevertheless, the 21-year-old University of Cincinnati student pushed her brother aside so she could sit next to the tall, dark-haired Skillman, a Naval Academy graduate in Akron doing some hometown recruiting.

Soon after, the two were talking for hours on dates. For Eckhart, the military was part of her attraction to Skillman. "He was a man," she says. He had a man's job, he called when he said he would call and he broke only one date to golf with his grandpa. For Skillman, the appeal of Eckhart was that he could envision a future with her. Early on, Skillman's sister had asked him to think of what Eckhart would look like in 40 years and if he'd still want to be with her. He later told Eckhart he had pictured her in a red business suit and said, "You're going to be cute!"

After dating Eckhart for two months, Skillman was sent to Orlando for naval training. Talk of Eckhart moving down led to an engagement, which led to planning their wedding in seven weeks. "We were spending too much money on phone calls," Skillman jokes. "I thought it would be cheaper to be married." They got hitched in June 1987.

Eckhart's father had spent 25 years in the Air Force, so she thought she understood the military lifestyle. "However, no one ever knows what to expect," Eckhart says, when they marry into the military. In Skillman's 23 years with the Navy, they've moved 16 times and circumstances weren't always ideal.

Eckhart had trouble getting through Skillman's first deployment, for instance. About a year after the wedding, he spent three months escorting tankers out of the Arabian Gulf while she stayed at home in Norfolk. Every day Eckhart would type a one-page, single-space letter to Skillman, relaying what she did and thought with her time. "I loved the letters," Skillman says. "But writing back, you say to yourself, 'I'm just so sad thinking about her. I don't know what to say -- I really love you and I miss you; I love you and I miss you.' "

"I always knew I wasn't going to do better" than Skillman, Eckhart says. She was certain he was the man for her, but she didn't like the life they were living.

The two learned from mistakes, being careful not to get set in their ways so they could better operate with the Navy in the background. Eckhart sought ways to cope through his second deployment. She was overwhelmed, caring for their first baby alone, and began seeing a therapist, who was a military spouse and could relate. The therapist suggested the couple institute some new behaviors, such as better communication, once Skillman returned home.

"It's so easy to blame the military for your shortcomings," Eckhart says. So eventually she morphed being a Navy dependent into an opportunity by gathering clips and pitching a column to a local paper about being a military spouse. That snowballed into writing a book and a stint hosting a San Diego radio show, all while having two more children. She now markets herself from her Herndon home as a military-life consultant.

She thinks it's important for military families to figure out how to meld the two halves: family life and Navy life. For their family that means taking turns and always working as team. Though it can be a bumpy road, the rewards can be great: "When you join the military, you're asking to be a part of history," Eckhart says. "You're asking for a big life and you're going to get one."

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