‘It’s the relationship I always wanted’
KRISTEN WILSON & JAY JOHNSON
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.”
RINGING IN ANEWLIFE: Johnson and Wilson, top, wed at theHotel Monaco in Alexandria. Wilson’s son, Logan, above left, celebrates.