“The Power of Friendship to a Soldier”

by Donna Zephrine

In the winter of 2003 I settled in at Hunter Army Air Field, in Savannah, Georgia after my first deployment and tried to make myself at home by becoming a part of the community. I was living in the barracks and found comfort at the Hunter Army Post Chapel, which was within walking distance. The barracks felt regimented and cold, not a place to kick back and relax. I always felt on my toes there. Church, on the other hand, has always been a comfort for me and a place I turn to in tough times.

One Sunday morning I walked to church as it was a beautiful morning, with a slight breeze and the sun creating the perfect temperature. I sat in the center of the church, where I sat each Sunday, and listened to the chaplain talk about community and getting to know those around us. I attended church alone but was always looking to meet others. After his sermon the chaplain encouraged us to greet one another. Everyone stood and walked around to introduce themselves. I felt nervous, as it is intimidating for me at times to meet new people. I found myself drawn to a slim, tall, Caucasian woman. She carried herself so gracefully and it was clear by the number of people surrounding her that she was a beloved member of the church. We introduced ourselves and she told me, in her charming southern drawl, that her name was Valerie.

We seemed to instantly click. My nerves vanished and I found myself telling her about my life. She introduced me to her son and daughters as well as her husband. Their family was involved in the church through volunteering with Family Life and Church Military, which worked to strengthen marriages and families. Her husband was a Vietnam veteran and so I felt a general comfortability around him, as if we shared a basic understanding of each other’s experiences. It was nice to meet a family who shared my love of religion and understanding of how war affects a person. We spoke for about a half an hour and the time flew by. After those thirty minutes I knew I wanted a friendship with Valerie and hoped we would see each other again. I knew there was something special about her and felt God blessed me by putting us together that day. I had a feeling she was going to be an angel in my life and admired her for her gleaming generosity and elegance. We saw each other every Sunday at church, volunteered together for the children’s pageant and often spoke on the phone. She became a friend I could rely on and was always there when I needed her.

In October 2004 I received notice of my second deployment. Valerie was the first person I told. I was afraid, and a lot of pain and loss from my first deployment came flooding back to me. Valerie prayed with me and guided me using what bonded us, which was our faith. She knew what I was going through as her son-in-law was in my division and also preparing for our departure.

The day I was leaving Valerie came to say goodbye. She hugged me and offered warm and encouraging words. She brought a friend of hers to pray with us for my safe return. My eyes filled with tears, not knowing if I would ever see her again. We took a photo together to mark a memory of our friendship and bond.

A year later, I returned to Savannah on a warm, beautiful October day. I was staying at a hotel on the base and Valerie came and found me right away. We had kept in touch throughout my deployment by writing each other letters – letters that gave me the motivation to push through every day, reminding me of all the people at home that cared about me. Valerie and I embraced with such excitement and celebration. I was filled with joy to be with my friend again.

I then realized I had no place to live. The barracks were only for single individuals and I was now married, though my husband was living in New York. I could not lease an apartment because all leases were contracted for at least six months. My happy homecoming quickly became stressful. I vented to Valerie, knowing she would have words of wisdom. But she offered much more: for me to stay at her home with her family.

I was stunned by her generosity. I hadn’t even asked, but she insisted.

Moving in with Valerie and her family, I felt at home. Valerie cooked almost every night and included me as a part of their family meals. She loaned the family car anytime I needed it. She even supplied me with food and money at times. I never felt like a burden or unwanted. I felt like I had a home in a time when I so desperately needed one. Even Valerie’s children and husband welcomed me with open arms. Before I knew it I was picking up their southern phrases. I found myself saying “I’m fixin’” to express wanting to go somewhere. I would give a “y’all” or “howdy” to greet others. I was struggling with PTSD and anxiety after my deployment and having a stable home environment gave me a place to heal my emotional and mental wounds.

Valerie gave me something invaluable in the most difficult time of my life. I felt blessed, Valerie was my angel. She was always “fixin’” to go out and find someone to help, and I’m lucky she picked me, a soldier, to become her friend.