It took a month for Courtney and George to meet in person. They had met on eHarmony.com and were eager to go on a first date, but both had hectic schedules in May 2011. George was preparing for a year-long deployment as a Marine; Courtney was lobbying for KIPP DC’s charter school students on the Hill.
After a number of long phone calls, they decided to go to an outdoor film festival in Rosslyn for a picnic and a movie. Immediately, it felt as though they had something special. She brought roast-beef sandwiches and sangria, and he brought guacamole and wine. Together they laughed at that night’s film,“Anchorman,” and shared their first kiss. Those moments of joy together would become critical in the next few months as George learned where he would be spending the next year of his life.
They got the news while on vacation on Catalina Island, Calif., that summer. George was invited for a trip on Courtney’s family boat, which meant 12 days of very close contact with her parents. “Thank God they liked me,” George says. Surrounded by Courtney’s family, the new couple was greeted with the news that George would be stationed in Afghanistan for a year.
“I knew he was accepted into the family when we got the orders and we all gathered as a family and cried a little and knew it was all going to be okay,” Courtney says.
The news brought them closer and showed them that they were dedicated for the long term. In November 2011, right before his deployment, George bought Courtney a dachshund puppy named Sunshine in hopes of providing her with some sort of companionship while he was away.
George deployed that month, and they started to Skype every few days.
“We managed to do things that normal couples do, like I would send him different things so he could cook food that reminded him of home,” Courtney says. “And my girlfriends were as blown away as I was when he was able to go into the bazaar to shop for jewelry for my birthday.”
“I learned that Courtney never had any military background, so she hadn’t been exposed to the deployment process and being separated for so long, especially for a year,” George says. “I learned how strong she was, and devoted, if she was willing to hang on for that long.”
In May 2012, George was allowed a two-week vacation. He planned a cruise for the couple, around the boot of Italy. They would start in Rome and end up in Venice, where George had a plan. But he hit a presidential speed bump in getting to Rome.
The trip was booked during the first anniversary of the capturing and killing of Osama bin Laden. President Obama had flown to the base where George was stationed, and no planes were allowed out. Meanwhile, Courtney was in Rome waiting for the trip to start. A few days later, George was finally able to meet her.
From the beginning, George was nervous.
“He had been really sheepish the first few days of the trip, and I couldn’t really understand why. I wondered if he was just adjusting to being in civilization or if I had done something,” Courtney says. “But I found out soon enough it was because he felt horrible that he hadn’t figured out how he could get a ring while on base.”
He made his original intention known and asked for her help in Capri. They would buy the ring together in Venice. Once they were there, they were sent to the top of the Rialto Bridge, where four of the city’s oldest jewelry shops were located.
“We went from store to store, and then we saw a ring that reminded us of my grandmother’s ring. And since my grandparents had been married for 67 years, we thought it was good luck,” Courtney says.
The next night, George proposed on one knee on a gondola.
“I don’t think I was as nervous about her saying no as I was about everything working out the way I wanted to and not falling out of that gondola,” George says with a laugh.
The boat didn’t tip over. Courtney stayed dry and said yes. When they parted ways, she went back to their home in Arlington, and he headed back to Afghanistan.
Five months later, they were together again. But there was another speed bump: George came home with an infection in his foot and spent weeks in the hospital. But they were still together.
“What we learned, especially in our time apart, is to appreciate the little things. We appreciate a lot that I think many couples probably don’t. If you have an experience with deployment, having dinners together is something that’s crucial to us,” Courtney says. “Being able to hold hands and wink at one another from across the dinner table while sharing a meal means a great deal to us. I think we have a deep appreciation for each other because we’ve had to be independent.”
Once George was healthy, the two bought a house together in Alexandria in December.
“We both genuinely work. We both have an interest in making a better life for the other,” George says. “We both have an attitude where we both want to make the other person happy. Genuinely.”
On Sept. 7, Courtney Philips, 32, and George Criswell, 41, were married at Catalina Country Club on Catalina Island two years after their first trip there together. As a nod to their relationship, bridesmaids walked down the aisle to “Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole, the song George had played in his car for Courtney on their first date.
Finally, they were together. Finally, they were safe. Finally, they could wink at each other from across the table, forever.