Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Happy Couple Highlight: Melissa and Vondalyn

Melissa & Vondalyn
Charlotte, NC
I am always fascinated by how relationships start. Where did you meet and what were the initial attractions? Von: We met in Charleston, SC while both serving in the U.S. Army Reserves. Melissa was drilling at my unit while she was in undergrad. 

My initial attraction to Melissa was her infectious beautiful smile and femininity even in uniform. I actually admired her from a distance because I was serving “in the closet”.

Melissa: I was initially attracted to the way Von’s Soldiers respected her. Her professionalism, mannerism, & poise commanded attention in the space that she was in and it didn’t hurt that she looked like a “well put together package” in uniform.

You have been together for 14 years. First, Congratulations. What advice would you give to other couples and why? Both: Thank you SharRon! It took almost 3 years for us to move into a relationship. Melissa was 19 and I was 29 when we met and I felt she was way too young to know what she wanted. Our advice to couples is that effective communication is the key. Age is a factor if you allow it to be. There are an abundance of young people who know exactly what they want and who they want in there life. Don’t focus on the person’s age instead listen to their heart and pay attention to their actions. Commitment is a life-long action; it is more than just a word. Once you truly commit to one another whether in a relationship or marriage then you must accept all of them and that include meeting people where they are - not trying to change them into what you want or need them to be. We give this advice because we realize as humans people change, some because of situations they may endure, physical or mental health stressors, deployments, faith challenges, even “growth” change people. Therefore, if you decide that you want to commit to someone it means that you are willing to take that life-long journey with him or her accepting what may come, what may go and what could be or not be. If you are not willing to embrace the changes that come with relationships then communicate that as well. Communicating effectively is always the key.

I so loved your answer because relationships are a journey, a journey filled with change. Congrats again. Getting together is easy. Staying together is difficult. You have weathered many transitions and storms. How did you manage and what was the hardest part? Melissa: Yes, we have weathered many storms. From the beginning, we have always managed a long-distance relationship. Our first major storm was returning from our individual yearlong deployments.

Von: 2003-2004, I was serving a tour in Honduras when Melissa received orders to go to Iraq, so we were separated for about 18 months communicating mainly via letters and some phone calls. When she returned from Iraq her level of patience had dwindled, there were some days I did not know how to verbally communicate with her. On several occasions in Iraq, she and her unit were under attack and she had seen things a 22 y.o should not have to see. It was a challenge to figure out how to verbally communicate with her face to face after 18 months of separation.

Melissa: When Von returned from Afghanistan, she was much more subdued from the romantic energetic bunny that I remembered. We managed to give each other space to adjust back into being home back on American soil. Allowing each other to process what we both endured during our deployments while simultaneously providing support, words of affirmation and affection to each other.

Von: The ultimate storm in our relationship was me having a difficult time accepting that I was a woman who loved women and believing that God could still love me. I struggled with my sexuality for almost 20 years because I grew up being told that it was wrong, it was a taboo subject, & nobody really talked about. My family & society said it was not of God so I would find myself hiding behind dates and boyfriends for years.

One day I just up and broke it off with Melissa after being in a relationship with her for over 6 years. I told her that I was still struggling with this whole thing being right and of God and I should not still be feeling this way after all of these years.

The hardest part for me was leaving the love of my life because I loved God more and I was told that I could not love both of them. I broke her heart, I felt her pain in the conversations, and I felt that I had to leave the relationship because that would please God. When I first met Melissa, I told her about my struggles over the years with being with a woman and how I grew up hearing & believing it was wrong and that one day I could just wake up and walk out of her life because of this struggle. She said these words to me that I will never forget, “I understand how you feel, I love you, we will work through it. I will always be here for you. I am not going anywhere.” She was only 21 when she said this to me; I on the other hand was 32 years old.

Melissa: The hardest part for me was that for a long time Von cut all ties with me, no visits, no phone calls, or emails, that devastated me. I knew she had told me that this day could possibly come and I thought that I was prepared for it. I knew that I would respect her wishes, what I was not prepared for was being cut off completely as if I never existed. That hurt the most.

In order for me to manage that storm, I used an approach of wholeness that incorporates the mind, body, and spirit. I maintained my faith in God that God would put no more on me than I could bear. I sought therapy for the stability of my mental health, I consistently went to the gym, and I engaged in routine massage therapy. This design of wholeness also incorporated providing a network of support that was encouraging, understanding, and empowering during this difficult time in my life.

Us: Our advice for managing storms is to always communicate with your partner, explain what you are feeling, what you are going through, and what you need. Over our first 6 years together every time Von would get “that feeling”, we would talk it over, and I would give her space & time to work through it. I never pushed her or gave her an ultimatum because I always felt that she was “the one” and God placed her in my life, so I just left it in God’s hands and prayed that God would give her clarity.

How do you deal with and face challenges (family acceptance, money differences, etc.) that might come up in your relationship? Von: I come from a family of 13 siblings and we are very close knit. My mother who is now 82 years old has always known even before I accepted that I was gay. In my early 20s, I denied it before I turned 30 we finally had a sit down conversation about it. Over the years, we just didn’t talk about it. After a life changing counseling session with Bishop Flunder five years ago, I called my mom and each of my siblings and told them that Melissa and I were together in a relationship, and had been for almost 9 years. (I included the time we separated; I call it my sabbatical period, lol). My nieces and nephews were more accepting than my siblings were.

Today, all of my family knows, 2 of my sisters attended our wedding, my oldest sister, who is 65 years old, walked me down the aisle, 5 of my nieces were in our wedding, and some of my cousins attended. Some of my siblings are very supportive of my relationship, when they call they also ask how Melissa is doing. Even though some of my family do not agree with me being in a same gender loving relationship I know that they love me.

Melissa: I am thankful that my dad, mom, and brothers embrace and love me. To deal with the family acceptance challenge, I purposely built my own family because I am mindful that not all of my relatives embrace my same gender lovingness.

 The Finances etc. challenges: I realized that our age difference of nine years allowed Von to be at a different level of job security than I and at first, it was rather difficult to accept that she had more disposable income and could spend money on me and I couldn’t reciprocate the same way. However, I came to the realization that the money was not the deciding factor of success in our relationship.

We realize that we each bring different gifts to our relationship so whoever is better at doing something that’s who does it. (I.e. Von is better at managing our funds; she is very detailed and thorough when it comes to money. I am the organizer of our life so to say, such as appointments and travel arrangements; I enjoy taking care of the cars. Our relationship remains successful because we have realistic expectations of each other.

I know faith is important to both of you. How do you practice your faith as a couple and what role does spirituality play in your relationship? Both: We both love God with all of our being. As a couple we pray, worship and fast together as well as apart to maintain our individual relationship with God. Spirituality is a consistent reminder that God is omnipresent, God is everywhere, and it encourages us to see the God in ourselves as well as God moving in our relationship. It also allows us to know that we were created by God for a purpose and we bring our purpose into our relationship and beyond. Our spirituality reminds us of “what love is” and holds us accountable in our relationship.

After 14 years, how do you keep the fires burning? What role does sensuality play in your relationship? Von: We flirt with one another all of the time. We affectionately touch one another throughout every day. Melissa can be walking past me in the house and I would just brush against her and wink. It brings a smile to her face.

Melissa: Von can be on her computer doing some work and I will spontaneously seduce her and make her stop what she is doing if even for five minutes. She loves it! Sometimes we wrestle which brings us in close proximity to one another to steal a kiss. We give each other words of affirmation all of the time; we say how beautiful and how sexy, the other is at any time of the day not just during the times that we want to make love. We are very affectionate, and practice intimacy all of the time.

Every relationship develops "Relationship Rules” that support your union? What are your spoken and unspoken rules? And how did those rules form? Both: We live by this slogan “Great Food, Great Sex, Live Life, Be Happy” Von: A spoken rule is honesty; always tell the truth even if it is going hurt. Melissa: We also express and acknowledge each other’s feelings even if we are not ready to discuss it in detail.

We process our thoughts differently. Melissa: I need to get it off my chest when the event occurs, I say what I have to say and be done with it. Von: I will shut down if I’m not ready to download. I either need a couple of hours or even a few days to process the situation and then I’m ready to communicate it. I’ve gotten better over the years and now I can discuss some issues right away. We know the importance of being heard and so we allow each other time and space to process and share when ready. It is definitely something we learned about each other in the early stages.

Both: Our unspoken rule is that we know each other well enough not to push each other’s buttons during times when we are most vulnerable and to never go to bed angry.

Von: One thing that worked for us in our “dating stage” was this thing called “confession session” that we created to take place at the end of the year. This allowed us to be open with one another about whatever we could not quite say at the time that something happened over the year. For instance, if Melissa thought or felt that someone was attracted to me or vice versa and I knew it but I chose to be in denial at the time, then I would confess that at the confession session.

Melissa: This strengthened our trust in each other to be able to be more open & honest as the years went by. Needless to say, we do not have those confession sessions any longer because we know how to effectively communicate at the time the event happens.

Every relationship challenges us in different way. What did you have to learn and un-learn to love her fully? Von: I had to learn to be authentic and to love myself fully before I could possibly love her because Melissa was in nobody’s closet, lol! I had to un-learn being in charge of everything and recognize that I had a partner who could hold it down too. Melissa: I had to learn that not everything in life could be planned. To love Von fully I had to embrace her spontaneity, which meant that I had to find a balance between my structured personality, and Von’s go with the flow attitude.

What has your relationship taught you most about yourself? And her? Von: This relationship has taught me that I have the ability to commit and do a great job at it. For years, I ran away from being in committed relationships because I was taught that loving a woman was wrong. So when I thought we were getting too close I would end it. This relationship has also taught me about sacrifices, that it’s okay to be vulnerable, how to love wholeheartedly and want nothing but the best for someone you love.

This relationship has also taught me that Melissa has always been the one for me. She loved me unconditionally even before I loved myself completely.

Melissa: This relationship has taught me to embrace each moment as it comes with dignity, love, and respect. Through Von, I have learned the importance of meeting people where they are and embracing life through the good, bad and the ugly. Von has taught me patience and I believe she was definitely worth the wait, lol!

You both were in the military. What was it like hiding who you were? Von: For me it was a bit difficult hiding who I was. It forced me to lie to my peers, my, supervisors and even my closest friends on a regular basis. During my years of service, people were losing their careers. I wasn’t so concerned when I was enlisted, as I was when I became an officer. I entered the Army at the age of 18, so in my early 20s, I was young and carefree and really didn’t know the consequences or the extent of what could happen to my career if they found out that I was gay. As an officer, I witnessed people being questioned and separated from the military simply because of whom they loved. Because our relationship was a long distance one, I was traveling most weekends to see Melissa. When I returned to work people always asked, so what did you do this weekend?” My answer was always the same, “I went to visit a good friend”.

 Melissa: I entered the military in 1998 and never really hid my sexual orientation. I didn’t exactly broadcast it either.

You both were in careers that made it difficult to celebrate your love. Von – how will your relationship change since you are out of the military? And, Melissa – as a minister, how do you plan to celebrate your relationship and other relationships?

Von: There are no limitations or restrictions in my relationship now that I am out of the military. I was very fortunate to serve over 26 years and top it off with the Army recognizing Melissa as my wife at my retirement ceremony. No more secrets and no more closets for me!

Melissa: As a minister, I will maintain a healthy balance of my life with my spouse and the work I believe God has implanted in me to do in ministry. I witnessed too many times of families that have been abandoned to the dreams of others but I vow to make sure that that does not happen to my family. I will maintain our romantic relationship as well as my life’s purpose. A part of my life’s purpose is to help others in their relationships. I help people embrace their authenticity and form healthier relationships within themselves. I believe this is the necessary first step in order to be in a successful relationship with others, romantic or otherwise.

What will be your legacy as a couple? Both: Our legacy is that our relationship emulates how we live a life that reflects God’s love as we cherish and celebrate each other daily especially during our most difficult challenging times.

What was the hardest part of being deployed? Von: Being so far away from all of my loved ones was the hardest part of being deployed. Not able to see them when you want or need to see them, not being able to hear their voice when you need to hear that familiar voice in the wee hours of the morning. Not being able to comfort Melissa other than verbally on the phone when I got the opportunity to use it. Losing my brother while deployed was one of the hardest things I have ever had to deal with.

Melissa: Wondering if I was going to make it back alive from a mission or silencing my mind through the times when it played games like wondering if someone is there trying to take my place.

I know that people frequently underestimate the impact of deployment on families. What is the emotional and spiritual impact of deployment? Von: Emotionally: I was never one to display my emotions on my shoulders before deployment but during my deployment to Afghanistan, I saw so many injuries of Soldiers and so much death of the local nationals especially of women and children that I actually began showing my emotions (crying) outwardly because I could not contain all of the pain. Seven months into the deployment, the Chaplain came to my bunk one evening to inform me of my brother’s death back in the states, I totally lost it. It was the second time that I had no control whatsoever of my emotions (the first time was the lost of my father 11 years before). Spiritually, we were given time weekly to worship in a church setting. For me, I had a lot of quiet time to think, read, study, and get a closer relationship with God.

Melissa: Emotionally, while in Iraq I was numb. I didn’t cry when others did, not even when we lost one of our comrades or when others in my unit got seriously hurt. Even after returning home, I was still emotionally unattached and eventually diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Spiritually: As a unit we took communion before we left on our very first convoy. We also engaged in weekly church services. Being deployed actually strengthened my faith and allowed me to embrace a different kind of worship, which was meditation, something new to me at that time.

I know support is critical. How can partners and families provide and offer support when soldiers are deployed and how can we help when our loved ones return? Both: When your Soldier is deployed, communicate with them by sending letters, care packages, and making yourself accessible when they call. The time change is very different and so sometimes they can call you when its 3 in the morning your time so it may require some sleep deprivation on your part and lots of sacrificing to be available whenever they call. We couldn’t call whenever we wanted but we called when we were able to.

When the person returns allow them time to adjust being back home. Don’t rush to events where there are a whole lot of people or anything that requires a lot of effort. We don’t do well in big crowds upon returning home. Pay attention to this person who has returned because some things may be different or there may be things they used to do that they don’t do anymore just as some things may be different with you since they have been gone. Be patient while the person is trying to adjust being back into everyday life. Allow the person space & time to open up to you when they are ready not when you want them to. We don’t like talking about our experiences because it opens up wounds and feelings that are still very real. Communicate to the person in a gentle way when you notice things are different from when they left. We have been in a state of high alert for at least a year, we were on guard 24/7 surrounded by enemies so give us time to adjust.

From an insiders views....over the 27 years, how has the Army responded to same sex couples? Von: After DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) was declared unconstitutional in June 2013, gays in the military did not have to hide their sexuality any longer. Before that, the "Don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) act of 1994 prohibited any homosexual or bisexual person from disclosing his or her sexual orientation or from speaking about any homosexual relationships, including marriages or other familial attributes, while serving in the United States armed forces. Many Soldiers were dishonorably discharged because of whom they loved. I must say that we stand on the shoulders of many military heroes who came before us and afford us this opportunity to share our spouses and families openly.

In my opinion and experiences, the Army has more so embraced same sex couples not only because a directive was sent out to treat everyone with respect and dignity but also I think Soldiers genuinely didn’t care unless it interfered with one’s job performance. I have heard of instances where leaders treat their Soldiers negatively when they find out that they are same gender loving. There is still much work and education needed. Many Soldiers tell me that they have an easier time embracing same sex women couples versus men. I came out to my supervisor, colleagues, and my staff early last year and they were sincerely happy for me and said it didn’t matter to them who I loved.

Melissa: The Army has come a long way since I first joined the U. S. Army Reserve. As a disabled veteran, there is still a lot of work to be done particularly in the area of receiving health care.

What 1 word most captures her essence and your love? Von: The 1 word that most captures Melissa’s essence and our love is adoration. I adore her and our love wholeheartedly. Melissa: The 1 word that most captures Von’s essence and our love is enchanting because some days /sometimes I feel like our life is like a fairytale. I married my Princess Charming.

What will be your legacy as a couple? Both: Our legacy is that our relationship emulates how we live a life that reflects God’s love as we cherish and celebrate each other daily especially during our most difficult challenging times.

Congrats again! Imani, the entire Create Love and I salute for your service! Blessings to you both and thanks for sharing so generously with us.
We thank you for sharing your love with us at Create Love! Your story will encourage, inspire and uplift other couples. We wish you continued success and

 Create Love Founders

Imani Evans and SharRon Jamison

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  1. Such a wonderful story of dedication, courage and perseverance. Thank you both for sharing your story. It is an amazing example of what is possible! And thank you for your service to our country!!!!

  2. I enjoyed.reading your story your a beautiful couple.. Its fascinating about other.couplea that have similar stories.,,, the best and many blessed.years

  3. I have to congratulate you on a job well done. You kept my attention throughout as your questions were thoughtful and the responses thought provoking. Very well written.

    I stumbled upon this site quite by accident (looking for lesbian pics for my short story ;), and though I am not lesbian, I found what both Von and Melissa had to say great advice for any type of couples.

    I congratulate them both on finding happiness....

    Curious about Von's experince and impressions of Honduras where I live.