Corvallis newlyweds serving in Iraq

Corvallis newlyweds serving in Iraq

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq -- When Candace Zepp first saw Jason Westlund's picture, she didn’t just think he was hot -- she thought she was seeing her future.

The first time they met was in the Frankfurt Airport in Germany. He was on vacation after finishing a deployment in Iraq. She had just joined a Medevac unit based in Salem, Ore.

They immediately wrapped their arms around each other.

“Is it real yet?” she asked.

They kissed, and then he answered, “Now it is.”

After a year of e-mails, letters and sharing photos and care packages, the meeting in Frankfurt was the first time they had seen each other in person.

During the long distance courtship, he even sent her one of his dog tags. “I’ve always worn it since he sent it to me,” said Zepp -- now Candace Westlund -- pulling the chain out of her pocket and fingering the metal plate with her husband’s name on it.

The two are now stationed together in Iraq, one of two married couples in Oregon's Charlie Company.
 
Three months after their initial meeting, Zepp went to the airport to meet Westlund. Over 30 friends and family were also there to greet the soldier returning home.

“I had a ring in my pocket," Westlund said. "I pulled her aside, I was really nervous. I drew it out for 30 seconds, it felt like forever."

Two years later they are married and serving in the same unit in Iraq.

When Westlund finished his deployment to Iraq, he knew he wanted to join a medical unit -- and it worked out his future wife happened to be in just that unit. In the beginning, they decided not to broadcast their engagement.

“He joined as a sergeant. I was a private,” Candace said. “That can be perceived strangely when someone is in a leadership position. We kept it quiet. Most people didn’t know we were together until we got married.”

Then one day she showed up for duty and her nametag read Westlund.

On June 23, 2009, Sgt. Candace Westlund, now 25, and Sgt. Jason Westlund, now 28, of Corvallis, Ore., spent their second anniversary at a Turkish restaurant in Joint Base Balad, Iraq. The couple, part of Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac unit based out of Salem, Ore., is halfway through a yearlong deployment to Iraq.

They still try to keep their relationship professional. “We don’t hold hands or kiss in uniform,” Jason said. They are happy to serve together, but as Jason puts it, “It's not all kittens and Cinnabuns; everyone has challenges.”

When Jason complains about the deployment, he is met with questions like, “What are you complaining about? Your wife is here.” But Jason wonders what that has to do with problems like the sweat-drenching 115-degree heat?

“People think everything must be perfect because you’re family is here, it must be better to be here,” he said with a shake of his head.

He thinks it is an extra sacrifice to share a war zone with a spouse.

“I don’t want my wife anywhere in danger,” Jason said. Although the couple supports each other’s decision to be soldiers, it's not always easy.

“If he were a civilian I wouldn’t want him to be here,” Candace said.
 
Over a year ago the couple began preparing for this deployment. They found a home for their dog with a friend and planned to put their cars in storage.

They didn’t discuss why they were uprooting their lives.

Candace Westlund, a flight operation non-commissioned officer, was excited to deploy. As someone in a leadership position, Candace Westlund wanted to have common ground with other soldiers that have been deploying routinely since 9/11.

“I think because I understood our mission, it was more of excitement to do my job here because I think what we do here is so important,” Candace said. “I knew I could walk away as one of the lucky ones not having a lot of traumatic experiences.”

Candace works the night shift from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. inside the operations offices, coordinating flights, monitoring aircraft departure and arrival times, and dispatching crews on medevac missions.

Jason Westlund, a flight medic, spends most of his days on the compound either flying or waiting for missions.

In the Containerized Housing Unit they share, the Westlunds watch movies and play video games like at home, but their conflicting schedules keep them from spending more than four or five waking hours together each week.

“We spend time at work or at lunch, it's not real intimate time with your spouse, but we’re grateful for what we get,” Candace said.

As soldiers they know the sacrifices and the benefits.

“In a dual military family I have always summed it up as the best thing about your spouse is that they know,” Jason said.

“You don’t have to explain why you are going away for months at a time. Since we joined independently, we both understand it’s a bummer, but it’s the nature of the job and we don’t stress about that,” said Candace, who views married couples in the Army as a minority. But new Army policies are emerging, like co-habitation when possible, are helpful to couples serving together.

Now the couple is planning to extend their deployment with Oregon’s 41st Infantry for up to three months. There the couple could be separated because Jason Westlund may be needed as a medic on the ground.

In some ways it is easier to extend because they don’t have a spouse that they are desperate to see back home, but they miss home just like anyone.

“Our lives are on hold, a lot of excitement, part of getting home is getting through here,” Candace said. “You can’t look at the end result as time goes by.”

Later in the fall, the Westlunds will travel to Germany and France for their vacation time -- and fly to the same airport in Frankfurt where they met four years ago.

Cali Bagby is embedded with the Oregon Army National Guard from Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac Unit based out of Salem, Ore., for KVAL.com. Her work has been published in the Washington Post and the Eugene Weekly.
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