Editor’s note: Today is Military Spouse Appreciation Day and this article is a fitting way to mark that day. On its surface, it is different than the type of commentary that we typically feature—the author acknowledged as much when he submitted it. But his reflections touch on a number of themes—retention, unit culture, the meaning of service, and more—that are inextricably tied to the Army’s ability to answer the nation’s call.

I cannot say I truly understood my time in the Army before I met my wife, Katy. I had been in for nearly six years, living in six different postings before I met her. We’ve lived in six more in the fifteen years since. I deployed twice before we met, and twice after. She’s known me since I was a captain, and she’s the principal reason I’m about to pin on a colonel’s eagles. I love her, and lord knows she must love me, because she’s still with me. Her life would have been infinitely easier had she not met me.

Poet Donald Hall, reflecting upon the death of his poet wife Jane Kenyon, captured an incredible insight about love in his essay “The Third Thing.”

We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention.

While Katy would certainly not describe the Army as a source of rapture or contentment, it has steered and circumscribed our lives. The Army has given us incredible opportunities, like graduate school in London and battalion command in Okinawa, Japan. It has also brought forced separations and posts we didn’t like with jobs I liked even less. And so many moves, evidenced by furniture adorned with four or five different tiny colored stickers, each from a move from one home to the next. The Army is a third thing for us. I would not understand my service without that shared attention with Katy.

Soldiers should always carve out time to reflect on their service, leaders even more so. It’s hard to find the time, but it’s necessary. You can’t understand your service without reflection, and without it you won’t learn lessons. You’ll just fumble along from thing to thing, too busy to improve and too distracted to figure out what it all meant. I’ve never been one for journaling, but I have taken time out to try and extract lessons. Some of the most impactful lessons are ones I never truly understood until they were examined in shared attention with Katy.


My wife doesn’t get jealous of me being around other women, but she does about the guys from 1/9 Infantry.

I’ve had the good fortune to join several exceptional teams across multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but none will ever be as close as the guys from my first deployment to Ramadi in 2004. Ramadi was a thing.

Almost a decade later, in the first year of our marriage, one of the guys from that first tour called me to ask if I’d give him a lift from Seattle down to Portland where his family was. I didn’t hesitate. There’s a short list of people on this planet for whom the answer is always, Yes, when? For me, they are almost all members of the 1st of the 9th Infantry (Manchu) team that deployed from the Republic of Korea to Iraq.

Katy was dumbfounded. It’s a three-hour one-way drive to Portland. “Why doesn’t he just fly?” I shrugged. I hadn’t asked. She was annoyed with my decision, and I wasn’t paying enough attention to figure out why. We fought about it, in the fleeting way you do early in your marriage when you’re still figuring each other out. I did the drive, and Katy didn’t begrudge me after.

I had almost completely forgotten about the incident until the summer when we were with her family for the 4th of July holiday. I’d snuck out of sight for a nap in the way soldiers everywhere do when, unaware I was nearby, Katy and her aunt came inside. Katy was telling her aunt about the event.

“It’s different, the way he is with them—like an . . . intimacy almost.” She admitted it was hard not to feel jealous. I’ve always known that the guys from that trip were close, and there isn’t a soldier’s history that doesn’t discuss the camaraderie that grows in small teams, especially when thrust into the crucible of combat. But that word—“intimacy”—stuck out to me.

It’s more than just “That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day,” though that’s a part of it. The brothers I served with on that trip saw me, day in and day out, at my best and at my worst. They saw me naked—literally, but also emotionally wrecked and barely able to stand as we memorialized our fallen. Jonny Ford, my Bradley driver, and Chris Bridges, my gunner, spent easily 50 percent of that yearlong deployment sharing the same ten square meters of the universe with me.

I don’t think Katy knew me as well as they did until she got to meet them in 2014. We gathered the old platoon for a reunion, and they were all too eager to catch her up, sharing all the dumb things Lieutenant Davis did. As we drove back that night, she asked me, “How did you not die?” I just shrugged.

Seeing them through Katy’s eyes, knowing she will always love them each for getting me home, helps me understand the intimacy of that brotherhood. Her reflexive pangs of jealousy, rarer now, but still there on occasion, reinforce it.


I never felt survivor’s guilt until Remembrance Day 2014. For better or worse, I’d managed to weather the chaos of combat and the random way it chose who to take and who to leave with little impact. It didn’t make sense, but it didn’t have to, and trying to make it so seemed a surefire way to drive myself insane, so I didn’t bother. Then, almost a decade later, it became inescapable.

King’s College London, where I’d just finished a master’s degree, invited students to submit names they wished to be read aloud in the university’s beautiful chapel as part of its Remembrance Day observance. I submitted the nineteen names of friends I’d lost over my first decade of service, and Katy joined me with our new son, Killean. He was barely nine months old and full of energy. To help settle him before the ceremony we were letting him crawl up and down the stone steps outside the chapel, Katy at the top of the stairs, me at the landing. And in that moment of shared attention, both watching the unadulterated joy our son had in slipping up and down the worn steps, I was hit with two thoughts in rapid secession.

The first one was a selfish one: that I wouldn’t change a single thing in my life if it came with the risk that I wouldn’t be standing exactly where I was, watching my son and seeing the same loving look in my wife’s face as she smiled down on him. And immediately on the heels of that chased the guilty one. Nineteen good friends had died, and I was there that night to remember them. But here I was, selfishly refusing them a chance at life because I wasn’t willing to give up mine.

As the ceremony started and Killean sat, oblivious, in the pew next to us, I wrestled with those two thoughts. I wouldn’t reroll those dice. But those men had not died so I could have a son, and selfishly refusing them a chance felt wrong. King’s had no small number of veteran students, and the British shared in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, just like dozens of other countries. The list of names was long.

“That was a lot of names,” Katy offered at the end of the ceremony, seeing I was struggling. I nodded, and we left, not saying much on the tube ride home. Once there, with Killean in bed and a glass of whisky in my hand, I opened up to Katy about those two thoughts.

She listened patiently, and asked probing and discerning questions before she responded. “I don’t see why they have to be in opposition,” she opened as she helped me see the truth in the paradox. “Both can be true.” Katy unpacked the irony for me: what happened to my brothers did not have to make sense or have a divine purpose, even as it was simultaneously part of an unbroken chain of events that led to our son fitfully sleeping upstairs. I could want both my family and for the fallen to have theirs. Surviving was not a selfish act.

This was reinforced a few years later when I invited Katy to a memorial for one of my soldiers she had known. Katy had lost family in her life and had been to funerals, but she’d never been to an Army memorial before. I told her she didn’t need to come if it was too much, but she did and it was in talking to her after that I understood the difference. “In a funeral it can seem like they are still there somehow. But when they called out his name . . . it forces you to focus on their absence. They are gone.” It makes us all take a moment and feel the loss, with nowhere to hide as each volley of rifle fire cracks. It’s tough to experience, stark and visceral, but it’s also honoring. We take a moment to intensely feel their loss, the sad notes of taps echoing in the void they left. It’s celebrating our fallen and their sacrifice, not just their lives, but the lives they could have had.


Third things aren’t always things you both see. In the Army, third things are often shared attention over things one of you miss. In our case, the one who missed things was usually me: my son’s first stitches, my daughter’s next belt in karate, both kids learning to read—events I know only from phone calls and pictures.

Starting in April 2019, I spent 397 uninterrupted days away from my kids, deployed to Iraq. Redeploying in the time of COVID meant I was able to get thirty days of leave with the family, but it was fleeting. Both of our children are autistic, which requires approval by the Exceptional Family Member Program before we can get orders to move. The process is onerous and plodding. In our case, we required no services, but the bureaucracy takes priority over the soldier. I had to depart again to take command, spending another three months without my family.

Katy had already transitioned to homeschooling the kids due to the pandemic, and now she had to complete her second household goods shipment without any assistance from me—from pack out, through delivery, to then the laborious unpacking on the other end. She did it like she has weathered every unforeseen challenge the Army has thrown our way: with an exacerbated “Really?!” and then resolute determination.

That year away was the longest, but far from my only absence. Over the years, Katy’s been better at adapting to them than I have. As the soldier, it’s easy focus on the things you miss and forget you are the absent one.

Katy is the one that must figure out everything my absence means. The schedules, the running of the house, keeping the kids feed, educated, and thriving. I try to fit in and help where I can, but Katy has also been clear that I’m the variable and they’re the constant. That means I need to pivot and adapt, not them. I need to adapt to their rhythm and not upset the order. Katy’s always had patience with me in this, but she’s also been firm. Even my help can be disruptive when, she’s “just going to have to do it next week when you’re gone again.”

Katy makes sure I catch up on the things I miss. But that’s more than videos of school graduation and birthday cakes. She makes sure I also see how my absence impacts the kids, which I wasn’t ready to appreciate until she made me. She also helps me see how all the families are coping, not just my own. When COVID lockdowns meant families in Okinawa effectively couldn’t leave the country for two years, Katy was someone who kept me aware of the impact it was having. She fed my boss homemade dumplings because we weren’t allowed to eat inside restaurants when he visited, but then she gave him both barrels about how he needed to do more to take care of our battalion’s families.


Katy has always been my favorite person to take a long drive with. We don’t spend our money on things like cars or jewelry, preferring to splurge on experiences, in particular good food. We eat well everywhere we travel, but I’ve always just enjoyed the easy conversation that flows between us on long drives getting to those adventures.

We celebrated our ten-year anniversary while I was in command of a battalion in Okinawa by slipping away for an overnight stay by ourselves at a nice hotel. Our battalion chaplain was an incredible officer, and uniquely gifted at helping couples navigate the stresses of COVID in a foreign country. He had a stack of conversation cards he used to spark meaningful conversations between couples, so in advance of our anniversary, I stole one and sent it to Katy to give her time to reflect.

“Over the last ten years, for each year, what was your favorite date?”

After a rich dinner and a lovely bottle of champagne, we settled into the room’s spa and started listing off our picks. It was little surprise that many of our favorites were the same. We relived the crazy chain of events that led to us eating the best pizza of our lives in Grosseto, Italy during our honeymoon. We reminded each other of the dates in London, both picking incredible but different nights out. And we reminisced about our long weekend trip around the Olympic Peninsula with two toddlers in tow.

Despite the intervening years, it was easy to pick out dates from over half a decade ago. But picking dates for years seven through nine got tougher. It wasn’t so much because there were fewer to pick from. It was just hard to separate those three years; they all merged into an amorphous lump of time.

These were the “iron major” years, or at least that’s what they are called in the Army: the years where you don’t own your schedule, beholden instead to a commander’s whims; the years when you’re on staff, plugging away on superfluous PowerPoint slides in a basement. One night, after too many in a row of being left with a plate of dinner in front of an empty chair, Katy called me at my desk at 1730 and asked me, “Are you actually going to come home for dinner tonight?” Equally frustrated, I snapped back, “If you stop asking me that question, I’ll stop lying to you.” I regretted it immediately, and she forgave me for it, but still. Those years were the toughest of our marriage.

When I returned from the anniversary sojourn, I brought in my majors and told them about our conversation. I told them not to repeat my mistakes, to be intentional with their time, in making time for simple things like dinner. And they all nodded along, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know what they were thinking: But it worked for you, sir.

Katy helped me see where the balance point should be. That will likely result in a ceiling for my career, but that’s part of setting the balance. We are raised to serve selflessly, but that has limits. No one is as selfish as the Army, and the Army will never push back from the table and say, “that’s enough.” More importantly, Katy helped me set limits during my time in command.

For us that meant, barring travel or a clear emergency, my butt was to be in my seat at the dining room table by 6 p.m. every day. I also wouldn’t check my phone or email until after we tucked the kids in at 8 o’clock. If anyone needed to get ahold of me, they’d have to send a flurry of texts until the vibrations annoyed me enough to check.

In two years of command, they never did. I even stopped habitually checking my email after putting the kids to bed. What was once an obsessive reflex became the exception, usually just to read some email that was too long to waste time in the office reading. Katy helped me see my habits became the battalion’s habits. It was my choice whether they would be good ones or bad.


When I met Katy as a captain, I was getting out of the Army to go to grad school. Having never wanted anything to do with the military, there’s a good chance she wouldn’t have dated me otherwise. I left for Afghanistan in 2010, both of us certain in the knowledge this would be my last thing, finishing my team time with a combat deployment. Except a mentor pulled me aside before I came back and let me know about an option where the Army would pay for me to go to grad school. When I looked up the Downing Scholarship program, I was excited to learn the Army was willing to pay so a soldier could go study terrorism at King’s College in London.

But I didn’t make the decision on my own. Instead, I sat down with Katy and laid out a series of paths we could take, to include continuing the path out of the Army. Then I didn’t tell her which one I wanted to do. I asked her to tell me what she wanted. She looked through the options, and then with surprise remarked, “We could live in London?!” And that’s what we did.

We did the same thing when it came time to put in preferences for battalion command. I knew what I wanted but kept that to myself, and instead asked Katy where she wanted to go. When she put Oki, my first choice, at the top of her list, I asked her why. “Let’s have an adventure,” she replied. And that’s what we did. The Army makes a lot of decisions for us, but Katy and I take every opportunity to come together on our preferences before we submit. Our upcoming move to Australia for senior service college and where I will command next were both things we chose together.

Officers in the Army make decisions for a living, especially in the brief times when we are in command. But as I learned from Katy, if you want those around you to help you make those decisions, don’t lead with what you think. Give them space to inform you or you will shape the environment. Your spouse will tell you when you’re wrong, but it’s a lot harder for your soldiers. Giving them room to give you their unvarnished insight is critical—otherwise, there’s no reason to ask them.

I imagine most Army spouses don’t know about the Davidson window. Katy does. It refers to the analysis that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army may be ready to violently invade Taiwan by 2027. That coincides with when I’ll be wrapping up command. The last decision you make in the Army is when you hang it up and retire. The end of command is an ideal time to make that transition.

Katy’s speech language pathology career took a back seat a long time ago because the Army didn’t make it possible to keep both her career and mine. But over the last three years, in addition to homeschooling two kids, she’s been completing her educational doctorate. Katy’s a better speech language pathologist than I’ve ever been a Green Beret, so there’s little I’d like more than to finally let her career take over.

What will we do in 2027? I don’t know. I do know we’ll make the decision together, just like we have for the last thirteen years.

Lieutenant Colonel Erik Davis is an active duty Army officer with over sixteen years of experience in special operations. He is also a Gen. Wayne A. Downing Scholar with master’s degrees from King’s College London and the London School of Economics. His assignments have taken him from village stability operations in rural villages in Afghanistan to preparing for high-end conflict in the First Island Chain.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Sgt. Aaron Lundgren, US Army