Retired Couple on the Front Lines for Military Marriages

By Jennifer Abegg

Melissa Pontiff didn't know where on earth her husband was -- literally. Mike, an Air Force pilot, had been deployed to a classified location he couldn't disclose to anyone, not even his wife.

Ironically, 28-year-old Melissa says, "Those were some of the best times of my life."

Instead of dwelling on what they couldn't say, the young couple focused on things often only thought and felt. Through e-mail, they asked each other honest and deep questions. The distance drew them together -- not apart -- thanks to their friends, the Fishbacks.

Bea and Jim Fishback are staff members with Military Ministry, a branch of Campus Crusade for Christ focused on helping members of the armed forces grow closer to God.

Bea developed some questions to help husbands and wives get to know one another better. Since spouses are frequently called on TDY (temporary duty assignment), Bea arranged the questions to initiate intimacy, whether exchanged face-to-face or miles apart.

Bea knows how the military can strain marriages. She and Jim, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, spent the first 20 of their nearly 30 married years entrenched in it. Today they help equip military couples across Europe to stay together and draw closer to God.

Couples like Will and Jamie Cable. From the start, their relationship wasn't expected to last.

They met at a military tech school and married within 6 weeks. Then the newlyweds moved to the Royal Air Force Station Mildenhall, a U.S. Air Force base near Cambridge, England, where the Fishbacks focus the bulk of their attention.

Will and Jamie's schedules rarely coincided, usually working opposite 12-hour shifts. They became estranged in the same house.

The emotional chasm between the couple eventually spawned an affair. On the verge of divorce, they remembered a retired military couple who had led a marriage conference on base. Neither knew Jim or Bea personally, but as a last-ditch effort, Will called them on the telephone, asking for help.

Jim and Bea began meeting with Will and Jamie every week. Though the Fishbacks lead weekend marriage and parenting conferences across Europe, including Spain, Italy and Turkey, they chose a time each week that worked for all four demanding schedules.

"They helped us sort through all the issues," explains Jamie, like forgiveness, honesty and communication. "And," she says, "they taught us to pray."

Jim and Bea assigned homework, like making a commitment to pray for each other during the day. Per the Fishbacks' instruction, Will and Jamie learned to pray together before going to sleep. They began attending a Bible study based on Defending the Military Marriage, written by the Fishbacks and part of Campus Crusade's HomeBuilders® couples series.

Three years later, Will and Jamie are transformed. They live in California with their 2-year-old daughter and mentor college students in their church.

"It's crazy that now we're the ones people turn to for wisdom the way we did to Jim and Bea," says Will.

Another couple looking to Jim and Bea for godly wisdom is Shaun and Amy Back. Shaun, a medical technician in the Air Force, rarely deploys. However, for the first time in 10 years, he must leave Amy alone with their 7- and 3-year-old children to serve in the Middle East.

The couple lingers after a weekly biblical-parenting class the Fishbacks facilitate. Outside, an F-15 flies overhead, but the dull roar of its engine goes as unnoticed as wallpaper.

"We need coping skills," says Amy. "Can we meet with you guys?"

"Yes, we can talk about expectations," replies Bea.

She and Jim raised two children: Joni, 22, a former missionary now pursuing a medical degree, and Jamie, 25, a computer programmer and church youth leader.

Bea remembers the difficulties of parenting alone: running the household, combating loneliness, and watching the children reach milestones her spouse will completely miss.

"We're kind of on duty 24/7/365," explains Col. Richard Devereaux, who has the highest rank and position at RAF Mildenhall. "There's no hesitancy to call people in late [or away]. Family members suffer."

"It'll be a difficult time," says Shaun, "but Jim and Bea are here."

"We fly, we fight and we win," says Chaplain Frank Yerkes. "We can't do that unless things are right spiritually. The family has to be spiritually equipped. Nothing will distract you more than if things aren't right at home."

The Fishbacks help many military couples; their personal experience earmarks their ministry as relevant and earns them instant respect.

"The key is, their military career is finished and they are still together," explains Senior Master Sgt. Stacy Brandt, who helps the Fishbacks lead marriage conferences. "'Been there, done that' means a lot to people in the military. We see Jim and Bea, and know that we can all make it through the hardships."

They met as cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A year later, in 1975, they married, went on a brief honeymoon and moved across the globe to Korea in less than a week.

And then Jim left.

Called to the field, Jim had asked to extend his vacation to spend more time with his brand-new wife, but his commander refused his request.

Bea, who had left the Army when they wed, was alone in a foreign country. She didn't know the language. She didn't know anyone. Although she had been a soldier herself, she quickly discovered that being married to a soldier was its own kind of battle.

Separation, both physical and spiritual, took its toll on the Fishbacks' marriage. Bea grew up with religious roots, but she says that she wasn't a Christian when she made her vows. He, on the other hand, was.

Six years later, they had moved again, this time to New York, where Jim signed up for a marriage retreat at the church he attended alone. When he invited Bea to the conference, she promptly declined.

Three days before the event, however, Bea dreamed that the devil approached her on a cruise ship. "What do you want?" she asked.

"Your soul," he replied.

She woke up Jim: "I want to go on that weekend. Is it too late?"

They attended, and for the first time, Bea encountered the love of God in a way that completely revolutionized her life.

After 20 years of service, Jim retired from the Army and they joined the staff of FamilyLife, Campus Crusade's division that works to build godly marriages and families. After 3 years of training, they moved to England to apply what they learned with Military Ministry.

RAF Mildenhall is a major port of entry into Europe and a stopping point for soldiers heading into the Middle East. Eternity is not a concept there; it is a daily reality.

Some have lost friends in Iraq, and everyone realizes they could die on duty. The Fishbacks regularly seize that sense of readiness to explain the promise of heaven through a relationship with Christ.

"Seeing changed lives keeps us going," says Jim. But it doesn't always turn out as they hope, like when a couple they personally mentored decided to divorce.

"Unfortunately, there are many such sad situations with military marriages," says Bea. "But the military marriage is just a mirror of what is wrong in the entire spectrum of society when it comes to marriage. Commitment is no longer in our language of love."

Bea and Jim include commitment, and a whole lot more, in their language of love. She gazes at Jim the way Lois Lane looks at Superman. She even calls him her hero.

"They can't keep their hands off each other," says their son, Jamie. "They've been married 30 years and it's like they are dating."

The Fishbacks have turned their marriage into a tool for outreach.

"Jim and Bea have had a marked impact here," explains Col. Devereaux. "They've figured out life is not about them. They're always looking outward."

"They've built a lot of lasting mentoring relationships here," agrees Sue Myers, a Campus Crusade ministry leader who, along with her husband, Don, has spiritually coached the Fishbacks for 7 years. "Those people they've mentored now mentor others. The legacy goes on no matter where people move."

As Jim approaches the entrance gate on base, he hands an armed soldier his and Bea's military identification cards through the car window. The young man dressed in camouflage snaps a respectful salute to the retired lieutenant colonel and waves the couple in.

Jim's experience with the Army not only earns access onto the Air Force base, but also instant respect from those who may need direction in their marriages and families. The Fishbacks want to help couples to fly, to fight and to win.