‘My husband’s gone. I don’t know what I’m doing – Help!’

Photo courtesy of Jeanne McKinney


Mary Jean (MJ) and Lieutenant Colonel Howard F. Hall – Camp Pendleton

JEANNE McKINNEY

By JEANNE McKINNEY
Courtesy of Carmel Valley News

Being married to a warrior is no easy task. Beyond the military theater or training ground, is a wife managing her own battlefronts, learning and living the term “selflessness.”

With her husband dedicated to a dangerous job that takes him away from family for months on end, she keeps the home fires burning, and her tears and concerns to herself. A vital ally in a career of sacrifice and service to country, she follows him around the globe – supporting the “mission.”

I first heard about Mary Jean Hall and the way she spends her time when I met her husband, Lt. Col. Howard Hall, the commanding officer of the 3D Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division. We were engaged in conversation on Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, Calif., after filming a massive launch of amphibious assault vehicles during Dawn Blitz, a ship to shore joint Marine Corps/Navy training exercise.

I found it impressive while chatting with this charismatic high-ranking officer that he found his wife’s work as important as his.

Growing up in Dearborn, MJ (as she likes to be called) graduated from Eastern Michigan University and worked her way into the world of information technology and mergers and acquisitions. Here, she honed project management skills she could transfer to a future role.

That role would change from working with highly trained professionals and overseeing satellite offices to working with volunteers supporting a loosely formed organization, with no budget or direction and unfulfilled needs – all within the confines of a military setting.

MJ met Hall online, who was then a major with an established 15-year Marine Corps career. She had to consult with a girlfriend about the rank of major, asking, “Is that good?”

They dated briefly before he was deployed to Iraq and grew their romance through emails and Internet video chat. She eventually signed up “to share every joy and hardship to an equal degree right alongside of Chip” (as she affectionately calls her husband).

The Halls and their daughter, Remington, arrived at Camp Pendleton in June 2011, and were challenged with a low level of family participation in the seven companies that comprise the 3rd AABN. From among more than 1,600 Marines and 1,400 dependents, there were only six active and dedicated volunteers to carry the huge load of helping one another.

“I was amazed,” MJ said.

In addition, military rules constrained her husband’s allocation of government funds for Unit Personal and Family Readiness Programs. These funds (“green dollars”) only could be used for battalion group events. To use such funds on individuals would be a violation and come with stiff consequences. Creative solutions were required to meet individual and family needs.

Facing this pretty and blonde CO’s wife was the daunting task of filling the gaps the battalion couldn’t. A working system was yet to be devised to help the young Marine’s wife who moved in, feeling scared, alone and unsure how to navigate through thousands of resource and instructional documents, or how to lend a hand to a family with an emergency.

A way to help kids cope with the challenges of constant moves and deployments was needed, along with creating a network to connect moms learning how to be independent and fight loneliness. For this and more, MJ quit her corporate job of 24 years.

“I truly am his partner in command,” MJ said.

She and her husband decided “to bring my skill set into a setting like this and plow forward for the next two years setting policies, programs, and procedures in place that would endure long after we have gone.”

MJ stepped up, ready to implement the “left of blast” philosophy, which is preventing an event from happening, rather than just re-enforcing or trying to mitigate the effects of an event once it happens. Both she and her husband share this outlook with the goal of “harnessing energy and ideas correctly to create efficiency,” as explained by Hall.

With ideas and energy harnessed, this former IT whiz took charge revamping The Spouse Club, an idea started by former CO spouse Candice McLean.

“She had great foresight, but we’ve taken it 10 steps further,” MJ said. “The Spouse Club was developed to build a sense of belonging and camaraderie and develop assets and resources to commit to family needs through volunteering and fund raising.”

Donated funds (“pink dollars”) can go directly to “Gator Families in Need.” (The Gator is the mascot of their amphibious battalion.) With “pink dollars” filling gaps left by spending restrictions on “green dollars,” the Halls began to effectively address both unit and individual needs across the battalion.

“Within the first 90 days, volunteers increased from six to 60,” MJ said. Also within that time, a charter and bylaws were created, a board of directors put in place, corporate-style meetings were introduced, and a website was launched dedicated to battalion families and parents.

“We have the people involved and excited,” she said.

MJ beams while talking about the Children’s Book Exchange, a program she started that gives kids a chance to check out books from the Gator Library, get a book bag to decorate, eat ice cream and socialize. MJ can hand a program like this over to volunteer Family Readiness assistants to implement in their own companies.

“We give them everything they need, except the ice cream,” MJ said.

The Spouse Club doesn’t advertise the people it assists.

“It’s just what we do,” MJ said.

It could be helping a family buy gas to visit a sick baby in a far-away hospital, finding someone to fix a lawnmower or another to bring in meals.

How many people are helped or problems averted is hard to tally.

“You know it’s really working when you have a new spouse log on to our Spouse Club Facebook page saying, ‘My husband’s gone. I don’t know what I’m doing. Help!’” MJ said. “That means the word’s getting out and she feels comfortable posting that information.

“If our Marines and sailors can train in the field or deploy overseas knowing in the bottom of their hearts their families are being taken care of and active in the battalion, this allows them to focus on being the most ready. For my husband, the end result is mission accomplished.”

Back home, it’s a mission in progress.

Ways to help the battalion:
• Dear Marine – Children’s letter writing campaign for deployed Marines of the 3rd AABN. Go to www.gatorspouses.com for more information.

• Monetary donations via www.gatorspouses.com to create and enhance these fabulous programs for our military families.

(Jeanne McKinney is a writer and producer. Her column, Patriot Profiles, gives an inside look into the lives of active-duty military – describing harrowing jobs and combat experiences which stretch them well beyond limits. From the mouths of warriors and heroes, rare insight is offered into the often dangerous daily routines, sacrifices, and anxious separations from loved ones.)