When Katherine Willson recently told her husband she’d taken a job working for the military, he joked, “I better call the Department of Defense and tell them they’ve been infiltrated!”
Willson, forty-three, is an artist, teacher, and president of the Ann Arbor Women Artists. She’s also a self-described leftist and pacifist. Her husband, David, is a technical writer at Siemens. He’s also an intelligence officer in the army reserve. For the past year he’s been on active duty, doing work he can’t talk about at an undisclosed location in Baghdad.
For many years, David’s military commitment tested their relationship. Even the couple’s wedding date, in 1995, was dictated by an earlier deployment order. Nonetheless, Willson calls their marriage the best thing she ever did. And while still a pacifist–“I still believe so strongly that hate will never dispel hate,” she says–she’s made her peace with the army: as a “family readiness group leader,” she helps others adjust to the tensions of military life.
Wilson is the oldest of three siblings who followed her father’s work from one conservative Michigan town to another. She always felt like a misfit.
She came to Ann Arbor on a music scholarship to Concordia, but says that as a nonbeliever she felt out of place at the Lutheran school. Students were told never to go to the Zen Buddhist Temple on Packard, which only made her determined to check it out. “Why don’t they want us to be here?” she asked the woman she met there. The woman replied, straight-faced, “It must be because of the animal sacrifices we do.” Willson, horrified, said, “Really?” And the woman laughed, “No!”
“I wanted to fit in,” Willson says, but she never did. She fell into a depression, quit school a semester short of graduation, and got a job at the Trellis Cafe, a tiny, now-gone tearoom in the Plymouth Green shopping center.
In 1993, David Willson walked in with a friend. He was finishing a master’s in technical writing, the third U-M degree he’d earned with financial help from the U.S. Army (the others were in mechanical engineering). He’s patriotic, but signed up for the army reserves at age seventeen mainly for the education benefits.
“I never imagined I would meet someone from the military,” Willson says. “I was so antiwar.” But she found David “a breath of fresh air”–and adds, smiling, that he also “was flirty.” Soon they were dating, then living together. They were planning a summer 1996 wedding when, in December of 1995, David got a call from his commander: his unit was scheduled to be deployed immediately in support of the war in Bosnia.
“We knew there was no way he would be home in six months for the big wedding, so we just changed plans,” Willson recalls. They decided to get married immediately. “I called my parents, he called his parents, and we just called our best friends–and a hundred and sixty five people showed up at the church. … The pastor said, ‘I thought it was just going to be four or five of us.’ And I said, ‘So did we!’ “And the best part of this story?” she continues. “That was on a Friday. On the following Monday we got word that the orders had been canceled.”
David stayed at Siemens, while Katherine took a series of administrative assistant jobs at the U-M. But “he would go away three weeks every summer, to do his annual training, and one weekend a month,” Willson recalls. “Inevitably, whenever he had to go away to do drill, if we were invited to a wedding or a party, I’d have to go alone. … There was a lot of resentment.”
And then, after 9/11, David really was activated. In 2002, he was sent to Germany for a year. “That was really hard,” Willson says. “Since he was in military intelligence he didn’t tell me anything, so I was bitter.”
Even now, she says, “I don’t know what he does.” As a Warrant Officer 4, though, David is well paid–enough so that when he returned from Germany in 2003, he supported her decision to leave her job at an Ann Arbor medical practice to become a full-time artist.
Willson, who had dabbled in art since childhood, joined the Ann Arbor Women Artists and began selling her mixed-media pieces and collages through the group’s exhibits in local businesses. She was warmly welcomed, and soon she put her business skills to work as the AAWA’s treasurer, then as vice president. In May of 2009, she started a three-year term as president.
That September, David learned that he was being activated again. Within weeks, he was gone for training. He couldn’t talk about the technical part, but he did say that he’d learned how to escape a Humvee that had rolled over. “That was scary,” Willson recalls. “I mean, I thought, ‘Aren’t you just going to be at a desk somewhere?'”
During David’s year in Iraq, Willson says, her fellow artists became a “surrogate family,” providing friendship and support. And though it worries her to see David’s gun by his side when they talk on Skype, this time, she’s not bitter at the army.
The reconciliation started, Willson recalls, when David asked, “I don’t suppose you’d have any interest in being a volunteer?” She didn’t, at first–until he mentioned that the training would be in Virginia Beach, in February. “I said, ‘Really?'” Willson recalls. “‘What do I have to do?’ He said, ‘I’m not sure. Something about supporting families.'”
Willson took the training and volunteers about fifteen hours a week, emailing soldiers and families, reading up on resources, and producing an online newsletter. She also gave talks about how to help soldiers transition back into family life.
This month, she and David will make that transition themselves: he was due home in time for Christmas. This time, though, there’s a new twist: while David returns to his civilian job, she’s now awaiting her call from the military, telling her where she’s to give her first paid talks as a member of the defense department’s Yellow Ribbon Program. “I’ll be working for all branches of the service,” she says, “working in all the states and territories. I told David, ‘I don’t know what “territory” means, but I bet it means some place warm!'”
She appreciates the irony. “If you talked to me four years ago, I would have said, ‘I hate the army,'” she admits. “Now, without sacrificing my convictions, I totally support the families that are left behind.”
This article has been edited since it appeared in the January, 2011 Ann Arbor Observer. Some personal details have been removed.