They met at a summer scholarship program during their high school years and remained friends after graduation. Sparks ignited between them their junior year of college. He was a student at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and she was the beautiful woman at James Madison University who he found himself falling madly in love with over AIM messages and emails. They took things slow, but after graduation their love really blossomed. Kwame proposed at the stroke of midnight at a New Year’s Eve party in 2005, and Danielle happily accepted. Up until that point, she had only gotten a taste of what life as a military spouse might be like, but when Kwame deployed just three months later her real journey began.
The happy couple became parents to Payton, 3, in January 2009. Jersey girl Danielle, who was once an event planner and fundraiser in New York City, now lives at Fort Lewis in Washington working as a Family Readiness Group (FRG) Leader. She is a devoted mom and proud wife who was recently reunited with Kwame, who just returned from his third deployment in Afghanistan. Holding her family down while Kwame was away wasn’t easy, but Danielle says she wouldn’t trade her life as an Army wife for anything. “It’s a roller coaster ride,” she admits, but still, she says, there’s so much more to being an Army wife than most people know. We asked her to share their story.
ESSENCE.COM: What was it like being newly engaged and having your fiancé away in Afghanistan?
DANIELLE BAYNES-BOATENG: That first deployment was really rough. Luckily, I was extremely busy. Planning a wedding really helped. I was working full time and I was doing a lot of volunteer work. I was living in Manhattan and hanging out with good friends. It helped keep me sane. There were some times late at night where I’d think about it and get sad. I tried not to watch the news at all. To this day I try not to watch it because all of a sudden they’ll shoot to a story about Afghanistan and the worry creeps into the back of mind. Your friends and colleagues know that you have a loved one deployed, but sometimes they’ll slip up and say something about Afghanistan because they forget for a split second, and that turns to worry. That was in ’06 and communication was still really bad, so I would talk to him maybe once a month and he would only be able to email once a week. When he called I would drop everything, because that’s where my focus was. He would call at 2 a.m. to guarantee that I’d be home and we could have a real conversation.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you have a special ritual for his returns home?
BAYNES-BOATENG: Typically when the soldiers are coming back with their unit, they come back in batches, but you’re told which flight your soldier is going to be on. Here at Fort Lewis we meet in the big gym. The air force base where they arrive is about 15 minutes from there and we get to see a live feed of the plane touching down. They take buses to the gym. It’s very emotional just because there’s all this anticipation and excitement. It’s a mad rush. It’s kind of incredible. It’s probably one of the most exhilarating experiences that I’ve ever had. You’ve been away from your loved one for a year and it’s not like you can just pick up the phone and call them. Then all of a sudden all of that worry is just gone. It’s just pure joy. You hug them, touch them and kiss them. It’s one of those experiences that only someone who’s experienced it can relate to.
ESSENCE.COM: How do you hold things down at home while your husband is away?
BAYNES-BOATENG: The way I was raised, my dad handled a lot of the financial business type things. But with Kwame, sometimes even when he’s home he’s not really home, in the sense that they work long hours and he has to go out and train. So, in order to keep the house going and keep a roof over our heads I take on paying all the bills and I make sure that the cars are taken care of and there’s food in the fridge. I’ve learned to handle those things and maintain the home.
ESSENCE.COM: How has your day-to-day life changed since you’ve become an Army wife?
BAYNES-BOATENG: I graduated school with a degree in communication. Right out of college I worked in fundraising and event planning. When we got married and moved to Missouri, we were 72 miles away from the nearest mall or Target so working wasn’t an option. But I wanted to continue to hone my skills so I started volunteering for the American Red Cross. These days, I’m a Family Readiness Group (FRG) Leader. My husband takes care of the soldiers and makes sure that they’re good and I work with the families. Not just the spouses; the mothers, the fathers, or any family member that wants to stay connected with their soldier. If someone needs help or has a question they’ll come to me. Either I have the answer or I help them find. I also plan events for the soldiers and their families. Things like skate night or bowling. Basically, the Army is your family and you want to encourage comfortableness between the different families – especially when the soldiers are gone for a year. I also help with fundraising. I enjoy it.
ESSENCE.COM: What makes you most proud to be an Army spouse?
BAYNES-BOATENG: Marrying Kwame and being part of the Army culture has given me the most pride in my country that I’ve ever felt. My husband and his soldiers are heroes. We hear all these bad stories coming out of Afghanistan but they do amazing things there. They save lives; they protect kids. It’s an honor to be called an Army wife. I’m so proud of my husband. He loves his job.