This is the story of Justin Constantine and his wife, Dahlia.
They met at a language class they were both attending in Buenos Aires years ago. He had flown in from Virginia, she from California. They dated that whole summer.
And their relationship was blossoming when Dahlia Hamza began pursuing her lifelong dream of getting a PhD at University of Cambridge in England, and Justin Constantine deployed to Iraq.
All was good, a modern military love story of emails and phone calls when Constantine was on a routine combat patrol in 2006 as a civil affairs team leader with a Marine infantry battalion and was shot in the head by a sniper.
The bullet tore apart his jaw and part of his face, and he was declared dead. Until a Navy corpsman stepped in and didn’t give up. He saved Constantine.
Hamza flew to the military hospital in Germany to be by Constantine’s side.
And she dropped out of the Cambridge program she’d worked years to get into so she could be Constantine’s caregiver as he recovered in Bethesda.
“She was, without a doubt, the cornerstone of my recovery,” said Constantine, who had his portrait painted by former president George W. Bush. “Now, we are an inseparable team.”
They got married. And Constantine became a force as an inspirational speaker, entrepreneur and veteran advocate, always telling the story of his wife’s sacrifice.
He told this story at a ballroom gala last month held by ThanksUSA, a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 by two local girls who wanted to help their military neighbors. They have awarded more than 4,700 scholarships worth $15 million.
And at the gala, Constantine and a number of military spouses and children told their stories of sacrifice.
I didn’t go to the event as a journalist. I was the plus-one for my son, who was invited by one of his best friends, a military kid who followed her mom on a deployment to a different time zone.
We celebrate veterans, but behind most veterans are families who have long paid a huge and often unseen and unheralded toll.
It’s the kid who adjusts to a dozen new schools, new teams, new friends. And it’s the spouse who puts a job promotion, a degree, classes on hold. Again and again.
“Dasher, Dancer, Deployment,” was what one article on military family life called the holidays.
“We are the community that is still there,” said Andrea Barreiro, who received one of the ThanksUSA scholarships two years ago and is the wife of Army 1st Sgt. Jose Barreiro. “The soldiers can go to training, can go to war and we are still there. We’re left to pick up all the pieces.”
The Barreiros and four kids moved from Hawaii to Virginia to North Carolina in the past four years. And each time, Andrea worked part-time jobs, racking up experience. But she had a hard time stringing together the classes to get her psychology degree in applied behavioral analysis.
For Barreiro, the problem was finding the time and money to earn that degree. For a lot of military spouses, it isn’t until they retire from military life that they finally get to pursue their goals. Barreiro was trying not to wait that long.
“The jobs I was vying for required the applicant to have a specific degree, even though I was highly qualified for the position or had experience within the field,” she said. She was frustrated.
When her family was living in Arlington, Barreiro got a full-tuition scholarship from ThanksUSA.
She’s since been moved — yet again — to North Carolina, and she’s still chasing that degree.
These are the sacrifices we must thank them for.
“Many put their lives on hold, just as Dahlia did,” Constantine said at the event, as he thanked all the families in the Gaylord National Resort ballroom at National Harbor.
That brings us back to that candy shop.
The happy ending to their painful and beautiful story came on Oct. 22, in a tweet from Justin Constantine:
“Today Dahlia and I walked past a fudge shop in downtown Cambridge.”
The Constantines moved to England this fall.
Finally, it was her turn to finish her studies at Cambridge, 13 years after she left to support her husband. It’s a beautiful turn in a familiar story.
Thank you, veterans. And thank you, to all the families who work, sacrifice, adjust, scramble, re-enroll, reapply and persist to make it all happen.