Oh, the places she's been

15 Aug 2002 | Suzi Drake

As Diana Berndt packs her home full of memories into boxes and prepares to leave Jacksonville, N.C., for the fourth time, she admits that of the 23 moves she and her husband, Lt. Gen. Martin Berndt, have made in their 33 years together, this is going to be the most difficult of all.

"We are very honored for Martin's promotion and for this opportunity," she said of their quickly approaching move to Norfolk, Va., where the general will assume the position of commander of Marine Forces Atlantic. "But we have formed such amazing friendships here. If you could just stay any one place for your life, I would probably just press the button for right here and let it keep me in Groundhog Day everyday, just staying the way it is right now."

But if there is one thing Diana has perfected in all her years traveling with her Marine husband, it is that the life of a Marine family is an adventure and that there is always a bright way to look at even the most daunting situations.

"As a military spouse you have to look at every change as an opportunity," Diana advises. "If you don't, you're really going to have some problems."

She recalls one such "opportunity" when her husband went to Okinawa, Japan, for a year. Left behind were Mrs. Berndt, daughter Danielle, then 6, son Martin, then 4, and son Dennis, then only 4 weeks old. Instead of thinking, "Why me?" she took this chance to return to her home just outside Philadelphia that she had been missing so much.

"We couldn't go with him. This was back in the old days when you just didn't go over there," she remembered. "So I went home. My sisters and their kids were nearby and so were Martin's parents. If he hadn't been sent to Okinawa my kids would never have been able to spend so much time getting to know their grandparents and cousins."

It is this kind of attitude that has allowed Diana and her family to truly enjoy and take advantage of all their assignments. And with posts in Germany, New York City, Norfolk, and Quantico, Va., to name a few, the Berndts have become a group of pretty world-wise folks.

"One time I was sitting in my house in Germany, my husband was in Iraq, one son was in Italy, the other was in France, and my daughter was in the states," she recounted. "It was a little nerve racking, but what a great experience for all of them."

However, one of the most exciting things to happen to the Berndt family actually took place here. It was five days since Air Force jet fighter pilot Scott O'Grady had crashed in Bosnia. Lt. Gen. Berndt was commanding the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in the rescue effort and Diana and her children were at home, patiently waiting for his return.

"Well, I got a call in the middle of the night saying, 'Ma'am, we just wanted to let you know the 24th MEU has saved the downed pilot.' I turned on CNN and there was my husband, who I hadn't seen in quite some time, talking. And at 6 a.m. it started. Newsweek, Time, Reader's Digest, and newspapers from around the country started calling the house."

Her husband being overseas, the media spotlight turned toward the families of the rescue team. Not wanting to sacrifice the privacy of her family, but realizing what a great thing for the Marines Corps, all military, and really the whole country this event was, she conceded to be the center of a two-hour long news conference held at the Public Affairs Office with all of the major networks in attendance.

"I felt like the president or something at the podium with all of the microphones," she quipped. "But it was such good news for everyone and something that this country really needed at the time."

But she wasn't up there alone; she took her friends and support group from the Key Volunteer Network with her.

Of the many causes and organizations Diana has put hours of energy toward, such as the infamous flamingo "flockings" to raise money for the American Cancer Society, the Key Volunteer Network, a spouse support network, and L.I.N.K.S., a spouse mentoring program, are the two she continues to be most passionate about.

"L.I.N.K.S. and the Key Volunteers Network are the two that actually aid in the mission of the Marine Corps, so (Marines) can do what they have do," Diana explained. "Because they enable (Marine spouses) to take care of ourselves and to know what is going on.

"These guys have to be mission ready and leave people back here. If there are no problems on the home front, then there are no emergency leave requests because people are able to handle things on their own or with their support groups; then the mission gets done. That is the most important thing, and something we concentrate heavily on."

According to Diana, the combination of these two spouse programs has tremendously improved deployments by offering support, resources and general knowledge to spouses left at home.

"Sometimes a major illness manifests out of just being lonely," she explained. "But if you can handle it with the help of your friends and support group, you don't feel alone anymore."

Additional advice from this seasoned pro is to take advantage of the many social groups and opportunities on base, immerse yourself in situations where you spend time with other military spouses, approach things as a team, and always look at challenges positively.

"You should come into the Marine Corps as a team. As a Marine you must bring your spouse into the fold of the Marine Corps family -- include them, let them know what you are doing and make sure they know what is available to them on base.

"If the Marine Corps is separate from you as a team, then the Marine Corps is the other woman," she said. "The worst thing you can do is alienate your spouse from the Marine Corps family. But once they feel at home, their new military family is virtually endless."

As Diana primes herself to say good-bye to all those she sees as family in Jacksonville, she has to take a little of her own advice to find the adventure in her 23rd move.

Helping to comfort her through this move is her recent quest to purchase a plot of land in the area and build a home that someday she and Lt. Gen. Berndt will retire to.

But looking back on her storied career along side her heroic husband, she is grateful for all she and her family were able to experience.

"My life with the Marine Corps has really been very special," she said. "I wouldn't trade a minute of this life for anything."