Family Fully Alive Articles


Long-Distance Love

A military family relies on God’s grace and guidance

Jimmy and Ashley Kepper have a strong marriage, though they don’t talk to one another for months at a time. There’s a good reason, however, for their lack of communication. Jimmy is a Lt. Commander on a U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarine that spends three-month tours underwater, ready at a moment’s notice to mobilize for nuclear war. Like everyone he works with, he hopes never to get the order to fire the sub’s missiles, though he and his crew train rigorously for the possibility of nuclear annihilation and survival.

Somehow amid the periods of separation and stress, he maintains a positive attitude for himself and his family. The Catholic faith he shares with his wife helps keep things in perspective, just as it was the link that brought them together years ago despite living some 4,500 miles from one another.

Ashley states honestly, “I never thought I would be a military wife, though I’ve always had the greatest respect for those who serve. My dad enlisted for four years during Vietnam; my grandfather was in World War II; my great uncle was shot down in World War II and never found. So I knew the sacrifice that comes with service, and at times it can be overwhelming. When Jimmy is away during birthdays, or anniversaries, or the birth of our third child, or when you have to move when you really don’t want to move, that makes it very difficult.”

Jimmy confirms, “They say that your boat, your submarine, is your jealous mistress. I struggle with the balance every day between family life and professional life. Ashley has supported me over time. We put it to constant prayer, whether to get out or stay in, and God has pointed us in this direction. But I can’t pretend it’s easy on my family.”

The marriage that was made in heaven started out as a relationship on the web. A cradle Catholic, Ashley was working for a Catholic media company, spreading the Church’s message, but wasn’t making the right connections in personal relationships. She reluctantly signed up with a Catholic dating site and soon got a “Howdy!” message from a handsome young man in a white Navy uniform. He was an Annapolis graduate, a recent convert to Catholicism, a fan of St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, and stationed in … Hawaii. God has a sense of humor, Ashley thought, convinced that a long-distance relationship with a military man would never work.

Yet Jimmy was smitten, and would move heaven and earth to be with her. They shared everything about themselves online, then in long-distance phone calls and finally met in person in November 2009, when Jimmy paid for her to fly to Honolulu.

Ashley and Jimmy were married in August 2011, and have three children, ages 6, 3 and 5 months. The birth of the youngest carries bittersweet memories, since Jimmy was on sea duty at the time. His schedule initially called for him to be home around the time of the birth, but circumstances forced his commanders to send him out on another three-month tour.

Going into labor, Ashley pleaded with God, asking why he didn’t listen to her prayers for her husband to with her, but it turned out to be “the fastest, easiest delivery of the three,” she recalled. “The next day, outside the hospital window, I saw a brilliant rainbow, and that was my sign. God is always faithful. Little James is a great blessing to our family.”

Ten days later, Jimmy was home unexpectedly for a week during unscheduled maintenance on the submarine. It was a visit that meant so much to everyone in the family, and they see God’s special blessing in their being together.

Ashley even sees God’s hand in their long-distance courtship. “Since we learned to communicate while far apart, it prepared us for the times of being apart during our marriage,” she observed.

Jimmy has been a Navy man for 14 years and would like to retire after 20. But as always, he and Ashley are praying for God’s guidance. They have moved many times over the years and live now in Jacksonville, Fla., south of the King’s Bay Naval Base in Georgia. They belong to an active Catholic parish and he is a member of Knights of Columbus North Jacksonville Council 5407.

“Navy work is important,” he said, “but marriage and family life is our vocation. It’s the job of a husband to help get his wife and children to heaven, to help them carry their daily crosses. It requires a lot of dying to self, putting somebody else before yourself in life. But that’s what love is.”