‘It’s the re­la­tion­ship I al­ways wanted’

KRIS­TEN WIL­SON & JAY JOHN­SON

The Washington Post Sunday - - ON LOVE -

Of the 330,000 ac­tive ser­vice mem­bers in the Air Force, only seven were cho­sen for an elite lead­er­ship train­ing pro­gram at Travis Air Force Base in 2007. Among them were pi­lot Jay John­son and nurse Kris­ten Wil­son.

The group was tasked with run­ning a mo­bil­ity com­mand cen­ter able to open an airfield any­where in the world within 12 hours. Wil­son and John­son quickly de­vel­oped a friend­ship based on mu­tual re­spect.

Her mar­riage of more than 12 years, which pro­duced a son and daugh­ter, was crum­bling. When John­son ad­mit­ted his own mar­riage was on the rocks, they be­gan to rely on each other for em­pa­thy and sup­port.

By early 2008, when the seven were sent on a week-long trip to Illi­nois, both had sep­a­rated from their spouses. Their evenings were filled with lengthy group din­ners, and for the first time, John­son, now 35, be­gan to look at Wil­son in a dif­fer­ent light.

When they were in con­ver­sa­tion alone, he sur­prised them both by say­ing: “I can see­my­self fall­ing in love with you.”

She told him she was flat­tered, but not ready to start a new ro­mance. And once they re­turned to Cal­i­for­nia, heavy work sched­ules and fre­quent out-of-state trips kept them apart.

That spring they de­ployed to the same base in Qatar. She worked a day shift and he worked at night, but theymet twice a day in the mess hall, where she would eat din­ner while he had break­fast, or vice versa.

They be­came steady con­fi­dants, though their friend­ship re­mained pla­tonic. “I had so much go­ing on as far as be­ing sep­a­rated and get­ting di­vorced,” says Wil­son, now 37. “I was like, ‘I don’t have any­thing left to give any­one else.’ ”

That fall, af­ter they re­turned to Cal­i­for­nia and wrapped up divorce pro­ceed­ings, they be­gan to spend more time to­gether. By then, Wil­son’s ex­hus­band and chil­dren had moved to Penn­syl­va­nia.

Though Wil­son’s feel­ings for John­son had grown con­sid­er­ably, she could sense his hes­i­ta­tion.

“When you come out of a crappy re­la­tion­ship, it’s like, ‘I’mn­ever do­ing that again,’ ” ex­plains John­son, who was par­tic­u­larly con­scious of the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that come with dat­ing a woman who has chil­dren.

But he found him­self at ease with Wil­son, able to both trust her and tease her, know­ing she’d re­spond in kind. “We’re just com­fort­able around each other,” he says.

In Jan­uary 2009, they went on their first of­fi­cial date. Soon the two were “ liv­ing out of gym­bags,” com­mut­ing the 70 miles be­tween their homes to see each other af­ter work.

They spoke the same acro­nym-filled lan­guage, had both done mul­ti­ple tours in Afghanistan and were sim­i­larly driven, reg­i­mented and ad­ven­tur­ous. Nei­ther had an easy time sit­ting still.

As the months rolled by, they saw a spark re­turn to each other’s eyes as the shad­ows cast by their di­vorces be­gan to re­cede. “It’s the re­la­tion­ship I al­ways wanted,” Wil­son says, “ be­cause I could just be me. And I didn’t have to ex­plain it or jus­tify it or hide it — I was just me.”

The pair re­mained in limbo know­ing that their next as­sign­ments could eas­ily force them to op­po­site sides of the coun­try. But in Oc­to­ber, John­son was se­lected for a fel­low­ship on Capi­tol Hill; the next week Wil­son was cho­sen for a job with the as­sis­tant Air Force sur­geon gen­eral in­Wash­ing­ton.

“ That’s what guys call luck and girls call fate,” John­son says. He asked if she would move in with him in­Wash­ing­ton. “We had an op­por­tu­nity to see if this was gonna work or not.”

On the East Coast, he got to know her chil­dren, 12-year-old Syd­ney and 9-yearold Lo­gan; be­cause his own par­ents were di­vorced, he was able to “re­late and talk to them about that kind of stuff.”

In Septem­ber, when the moth­ers of both John­son and Wil­son were vis­it­ing, he pro­posed on the steps of the Capi­tol. De­cid­ing to ask, he told her, was “ the eas­i­est thing I’ve ever done inmy life.”

On New Year’s Eve, the two ex­changed vows be­fore 60 guests at the Ho­tel Monaco in Alexan­dria. John­son pre­sented Lo­gan with a pair of pi­lot’s wings, ask­ing the boy to be his wing­man. “ That means you have to help me take care of your mom,” he ex­plained. The cou­ple and both chil­dren each poured a vial of sand into a larger con­tainer, sig­ni­fy­ing their new life as a fam­ily.

“Liv­ing the life that we do, when you’re in [emer­gency] sit­u­a­tions or you’re in an air­plane over Afghanistan, it changes your per­spec­tive and you truly learn what does and doesn’t mat­ter,” John­son says.

“Hon­estly I don’t think there’s any­thing we can’t do to­gether.”

PHO­TOS BY EVY MAGES FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

RING­ING IN ANEWLIFE: John­son and Wil­son, top, wed at the­Ho­tel Monaco in Alexan­dria. Wil­son’s son, Lo­gan, above left, cel­e­brates.

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