CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. -- The military forces people to grow up fast -- especially when it comes to marriage.
That's what military wife Wesley Ann Wade said when talking about marrying young in the military.
Wade and other military couples said the "young marriage complex" has existed for years when star-crossed lovers eloped just before deployments. This still exists today, according to several Clarksville couples, but sometimes for reasons that are much different.
Almost 43 percent of active-duty members are 25 or younger and 23 percent range from 26 to 30 years old, according to the Department of Defense Demographics Report. Over half (56.1 percent) on active duty are married.
Add to those statistics the fact that the Army has the highest percentage of married members at almost 60 percent, according to the report.
So, there are still a lot of young military lads and ladies getting hitched. But why?
"Most people in their 30s and 40s don't see the stuff a 20-year-old soldier sees," Wesley Ann said. "I think marriage gives them a feeling of stability. Soldiers' lives are constantly in danger and a lot of them have lost friends at such a young age, so a lot of them live for the present. If they find someone they love or they want to start a family with, they want to do it now."
Wesley Ann and her husband William dated only 10 months before they got married. He was 21 and she was 23.
Almost five years later, they are still married with no children. William is a sergeant based at Fort Campbell with seven years of service under his belt.
"Marriage at a young age is a little bit harder because you are still figuring out who you are. But if you want the marriage to work, both people really have to give 110 percent -- but that goes for any marriage at any age," Wesley Ann said.
With a total of 18 months in combat over two deployments, the Wades have been together since William's first. Wesley Ann said she wouldn't change a thing if she had to do it over. She said she would still marry young.
"I don't think marriage gets easier when you're older, you just face different life problems," said Wesley Ann.
Psychology of it all
Adding science to the mix, Dr. E.C. Hurley from the Soldier Center said there's more of a need to marry that's embedded into soldiers.
"There's this need for belonging -- this attachment issue," said Hurley. "It's in human nature, but it's more so for the military. They want people who love them to remember them. They want children to carry on their legacy because there's this uncertainty of coming back."
Hurley said after this need, there are varying reasons for marrying young in the military ranging from economic gain, security and love.
The biggest issue young couples have in the military is adjusting to expectations and ideals, according to Hurley.
"After you get married, there's an adjustment of expectations or what it means to be married," said Hurley. "The spouse has to go through these adjustments where the soldier's commitment is 24/7."
Hurley said the spouse needs to understand and adapt to the uncertainty of the soldier being able to drop everything or leave the job when the spouse needs them.
"Sometimes the needs of the military come first," Hurley said. "Soldiers are taught that this mission is the most important thing.
"The soldiers have to balance the reality of the mission with the priority of marriage."
Military service adds more challenges to a marriage than a civilian union, and older couples tend to have more experience with having to deal with these types of challenges, according to Hurley.
Hurley said all marriages and even romantic relationships go through predictable phases, but young marriages are different because they have this idea of what they want.
"They are in this bubble of ideals about what their hopes and dreams are for marriage," said Hurley.
Hurley has spent his life dedicated to the military. After 33 years serving as an Army chaplain and part of that time actually enlisted, Hurley now runs the Soldier Center in Clarksville where he works with soldiers and military families.
A re-do would be different
Kayla and Kriscijan Radic have been together for almost four years and married for two with no children. They decided to take their vows when Kayla was 18 and Kriscijan was 19.
When asked what they would do if they had to do it over, both Radics said they would have waited to marry instead of marrying young right away.
"There would be more everything if you wait, especially if you stay with them a while," said Kriscijan. "Yes, the Army causes problems like not enough family time. They stress that they care about families, but not enough time is given. I had 10 days to deploy. No time was given for family. I went home every night around 8 p.m. That's why most Army people complain about marriage because you work hard all day to either come home to a fight or not seeing your family awake."
Both were in college when Kriscijan decided to join the Army and asked Kayla to marry him. Kayla left school in Virginia to join her husband at Fort Campbell after his relocation.
"I didn't see a long-distance relationship working out in the Army without marriage," said Kriscijan. "The paperwork made everything official and made us happier."
Kriscijan said he joined the Army because he wanted to be a cop and wanted to be the first in his family to serve, among other reasons. His family immigrated from Bosnia and Croatia.
Now, Kriscijan is a military policeman currently serving a nine-month deployment to Liberia, Africa.
"Barely seeing your loved ones because of their work schedule or not being able to go back home at any time is the hardest part," said Kayla. "We struggle with that the most."
Marrying young in the military has its perks, apparently. Kriscijan said he thinks military guys get married young for the extra money and to stay out of the barracks so they can get their own houses.
But it doesn't come without its hardships.
"Honestly, all people go through struggles with marriage at any time, no matter the age," said Kayla. "Yes, it may seem harder when you're young, but you just have to know that you're going to get through it together."
One for the books
While a junior in high school in a little town in Texas, Jon Boring happened to see Stephanie at a football game. He knew her older sister, who introduced him to the soon-to-be freshman. After that introduction, they started dating. Jon and Stephanie continued their relationship throughout high school and after he graduated.
It wasn't until a few semesters of community college had passed that Jon decided to join the Army at Fort Hood.
Two months after Stephanie graduated high school, Jon took a four-day pass to travel back home and marry his high school sweetheart.
She didn't move with him to Fort Hood until that next January, six months after their union.
"It really wasn't a well thought out plan," said Jon. "But, we knew each other really well. We started with absolutely nothing and worked our way through."
Two years later, he was assigned to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Fort Campbell where they've been ever since.
In his 22 years of service, Jon and Stephanie faced 14 combat deployments, the birth of their three children, Dylen (19), Jacey (10), Mirabelle (19 months) and numerous trips away for training.
Jon said he credits his successful marriage to strong faith, a strong family upbringing and trial and error without giving up.
When asked about a re-do on marrying young, his answer was almost instantaneously no.
"I tend to believe everything happens for a reason," he said. "There's nothing that I wanted to do that I didn't do. We experienced everything together."
Jon said he thinks young military members get married so quickly because of young love and the ability to grow up faster.
"The military is a way for you to start earning and providing for a spouse faster than earning a degree through college," said Jon. "I would attribute it to impatience."
But once you get married, Jon said things change.
Money, being young and immature and separation from family were the three struggles Jon said are common issues in young military marriages.
Jon said they're some of the hardest things to overcome when trying to build a household.
"It can be easy to blame the military for marital problems," Jon said. "Yes, it makes it more difficult and can be taxing on a marriage, but it's not to blame for divorce. If (divorce is) going to happen, it's going to happen."
For 21 years, Stephanie has been Jon's rock, but Jon said he would caution any young military couple wanting to tie the knot.
"I would say give it some time, give it a year," said Jon. "Let them see what it's like to be around you when you're deployed because everything changes. They have to have a complete understanding of what military life is.
"Research. Talk to people who've been there and let your spouse get to know the people in your unit. That would be my advice."