“It was the onion ring that gave me the idea,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Cagne. The Operations non-commissioned officer for the 36th Infantry Division Band, was ordering french fries at the Burger King on North Fort, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA. when he decided the time was right to pop the question. It was November 2010, shortly before the division was scheduled to leave for southern Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn, when he saw the prophetic lone onion ring mixed in with the fries that gave him the extra push he needed. So without further ado, he promptly took the “golden” tidbit out and went down on his knees before his girlfriend of more than a year, Sgt. Jessica Lindstrom, and popped the question that would set both of them on a new direction in their relationship.
“It was one of those really little ones, too, so it actually fit on my finger!” Lindstrom laughingly said. Fortunately for the clarinet player, who is normally a member of the band but volunteered for the division’s deployment to Iraq for Operation New Dawn as a mailroom clerk with Headquarters and Support Company, 36th Division Special Troops Battalion, her intended soon replaced the onion ring with a real one.
“We got married during our Thanksgiving Day pass,” Gagne said. “We did all the paperwork prior to the pass, and on the second day we went to a ring store and I got her that nice little rock she’s wearing now.”
“It cost a lot of money, but that’s okay,” the 28-year-old native of Woonsocket, R.I., added with a laugh. “We’re saving a lot of money out here, so it was worth it!”
The two met the very first day Lindstrom, a native of Eagle Grove, Iowa, checked in with the division band in late August 2009, she recalled.
“We pretty much hit it off right off the bat. I went to the band hall to do some work and was introduced to him,” said Lindstrom, who is currently waiting on the paperwork approving her name change. “He did all the in-processing for the band, and we were supposed to have drill that weekend. I came in that Wednesday so I could get my clarinet and start getting ready.”
“There was another band member playing the trumpet at a Round Rock Express baseball game, and he was giving away free tickets,” Gagne added. “So I said, ‘Hey, do you want to go to the game?’ We went that night and had our first date on the day we met. She didn’t know it was a date until a couple of weeks later, though!”
Although neither soldier is originally from Texas, the state’s capital lured them both into becoming residents. Gagne, who also plays the trombone, guitar and bass, said Austin drew him because its reputation as the live-music capital of the world. He joined the Rhode Island Army National Guard in 2002 for college money and the opportunity to play more “gigs,” and transferred to the Texas Guard in 2008.
Lindstrom had served four years in the active-duty Army at Fort Hood, Texas, which is where she said she became familiar with the Austin area. After deploying to Iraq in 2004 with the 1st Cavalry Division, she decided to leave active duty and joined the Iowa Army National Guard. After a few years of Iowa winters and small-town living, however, the 28-year-old said she needed a change and moved back to Texas.
“We pretty much started getting serious right away, which was kind of hard since he had a full time job as a [military] technician and I was a full-time student,” she added. “I’d go see him after I was done with school, though, and we just tried to get together as much as we could.”
So far, Gagne said, he couldn’t really compare married life in Iraq to what it would be like in the States, as they have currently been deployed their entire marriage.
“It gives us a chance to see each other, though. In the evening we shut our [combat housing unit] door and hang out just like normal people “well, almost,” he added.
“They say that deployments change people, but I think we’ve done pretty good,” Lindstrom agreed. “Couples tend to argue about money a lot, which is one thing we actually have here, so it’s one less thing to worry about! I think it makes things less complicated and we get to focus on each other more, because there’s not that ‘outside world’ intruding. I mean, we don’t have choices to go out to eat; we go to the chow hall. It makes our lives less complicated, so we can spend time with each other.”
“I feel bad for couples that are separated during deployment; one is here the other is at home,” Gagne said. “I’ve heard all the horror stories about the spouse at home not understanding what’s going on over here. Since we’re both actually here, we can understand more of what the other is going through. I don’t know how many times we’ve just been watching a movie in bed and ‘BAM,’ the alarm goes off and we both just have to hit the floor. It’s hard to explain that to someone at home.”
One of the best advantages of deploying together is the opportunity to save money, Gagne added. They plan on putting a hefty deposit on a house when they return to Austin, and they also intend on having a larger, more formal wedding their family members can attend.
“We didn’t have family at our wedding; just our friends from the band who didn’t go home for the pass. So we will have another one when we get back home,” he said. “Our moms actually met at the yellow-ribbon ceremony back before we left, and they seemed to get along really well. And before I married her, I called up her father and said, ‘Um, sir, I’d like your permission to marry your daughter.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I think that would be a pretty good idea.’ So … I think they’re supportive.”
One thing for certain, though, is that spending their first year of marriage deployed to Iraq will offer a unique perspective throughout their later years, Gagne said.
“When we get back and little problems come up, we’ll be able to say, ‘Hey, do you remember that time…? That was definitely worse,’ ” he said. “We try not to let the small stuff bother us anyway, but a lot of normal problems won’t seem so bad when back in the States.”