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Gainesville soldier meets her soul mate during flight school, deploys to Afghanistan with him

POSTED: February 14, 2012 1:30 a.m.
/For The Times

Sara Walker, left, shares a kiss with her husband, Phillip, while deployed to Afghanistan.

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When U.S. Army Capt. Sara Walker decided to pursue an aviation career she was looking for a challenge.

On both a professional and personal level, she found it. Not only did she master flying the 23,000-pound Chinook helicopter, she also met Capt. Phillip Walker — a man who would become her comrade-in-arms in every sense of the word.

"We met while in flight school. He lived a few houses down from me," said Walker, formerly Sara McCleary, a 2004 North Hall High School graduate.

"He was having a get-together with some of our neighbors and invited my roommate and I. We hit it off from there."

With a six-month delay before they began formal training, the 2008 North Georgia College & State University graduate says the duo had a lot of time to get to know each other.

"We started working out together. He’s really into sports and doing things outdoors," Walker said.

"It was surprising because he’s very into video games. At first, I thought he was this nerdy guy that just likes to play ‘Call of Duty,’ I didn’t think he’d be into sports and things like that.

The couple continued their courtship throughout flight school. He proposed in July 2010, and they set about planning a traditional spring wedding.

"When we found out his unit was getting deployed, we decided to push everything forward and started planning a December wedding," Walker said.

Shortly after their wedding, they boarded a plane and set their sights on a trip filled with sand, sun and bonding.

Most newlyweds would’ve been giddy with excitement as they embarked on their honeymoon, but the Walkers were a bit more subdued.

Instead of Hawaii or some other tropical locale, they were both at the front end of an extended deployment to Afghanistan.

Although his deployment was anticipated, the couple wasn’t initially expecting Sara to deploy at the same time.

Upon their arrival at their duty station at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, a few days after their wedding, the couple was invited to attend her company’s Christmas party.

"At the party, the brigade commander, (my husband) and I were making small talk. He found out that we were recently married and didn’t like the thought of splitting us up and the possibility of us being on opposite deployment cycles," Walker said.

"He said we could either both stay in Alaska for the next year or we could both go to Afghanistan. We talked about it and decided that since we’re young with no kids, we might as well get the experience under our belts. So we decided to go."

The couple had the opportunity to be stationed together in Alaska and ultimately deployed together as a part of the Army Married Couples Program, which is designed to help ensure that married couples are considered for assignments together.

Their pilot specialties also helped to keep the couple together.

Although she was initially hoping for a different assignment, during flight school Walker was assigned to the Chinook. Meanwhile, Phillip was assigned to the Black Hawk helicopters.

"Only two units were deployed to Afghanistan from Alaska — the Chinooks and the Black Hawks," Walker said.

"I didn’t get my No. 1 choice (in flight school), but that ended up being better for us because the Chinooks and Black Hawks are always stationed together."

They were deployed in March and returned to the United States earlier this month.

Although internal relations can make the first year of marriage stressful, there were times the Walkers had to also deal with the influence of outside forces.

"People kind of treated us differently because we were together, but they weren’t able to see their spouses. They didn’t mean to do it, but some people resented us," Walker said.

"If I was in their positions, I would’ve been jealous, too."

Though it took some trial and error, the couple learned how to make their unique honeymoon phase work.

"We had moments where we would go eat together. And when we had quiet time, we would go in a room and talk as husband and wife, not officer to officer," Walker said.

"We got to a point where we were treating each other as soldiers, and we sometimes said things we didn’t mean. When that happened, we had to catch ourselves and apologize."

Although they were able to see each other daily during the first half of their deployment, the couple eventually was split up for the second half.

Even though their unique position created hardships at times, it wasn’t without its benefits.

"We went to New Zealand for R and R, ... that was kind of like our honeymoon," Walker said.

"And we were also able to save a lot of our money, so we’ll be able to start a family soon."

Valentine’s Day is typically marked with elaborately planned displays of affection, but after spending their first year of marriage under fire, the Walkers are looking forward to a simple celebration.

"We’re finally moving into our house," Walker said.

"Hopefully, I’ll be able to dig out our kitchenware and be able to cook a meal for the first time in a year.

"That’s our big plan."

Though their situation wouldn’t be considered ideal by most standards, Walker wouldn’t rewrite any parts of their love story.

"Thankfully we had a lot of time to get to know each other before our lives got so crazy," Walker said.

"Being deployed so soon into our marriage was stressful at times, but I wouldn’t change anything.

"I’d keep everything exactly the same."



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