I don't actually remember meeting Will for the first time. He came to my high school in Seattle sophomore year, but I didn't develop a crush on him until the next summer…
He was more of a bad boy back then, and I was a silly goody two-shoes who wore basketball shorts, sweatshirts and tennis shoes to school everyday.
I put on my best moves, which back then, were trying to connect with him on AOL Instant Messenger over the fact that we both owned rabbits. Little did I know, the rabbit I thought was his actually belonged to his sister, Anna, and he absolutely hated it.
He started dating a cheerleader soon after, making it very clear my crush was not reciprocated. But we continued to hang out in similar circles and remained friends throughout high school.
Kimmy Chapman University,
We lost touch after graduation. I went away to school in southern California, and after a brief three weeks in college, he enlisted in the Marines.
A year later, when I was a sophomore at Chapman University, I learned Will was stationed just 20 miles south of my campus.
He visited me with some mutual Seattle friends, and I noticed a change. He was flirting with me! We kissed for 10 seconds, and it was awesome. He wanted to take me on a date, but I said no.
This time, it was me who was the silly one for not wanting a relationship. It's hard to remember all of the reasons why I wasn't interested, but I assume I just wanted a carefree college life, and the thought of the military was overwhelming. Mostly, I think I was just too wrapped up in my own world to see what was standing in front of me.
And then he was gone. Will headed off on his first deployment as a Marine in the South Pacific. He'd be away for the next seven months.
Will returned from his deployment in July 2008, and we met at a party in Seattle later that summer. We were surrounded by people, but somehow spent the entire night together, and fell asleep talking around 5 a.m. From the moment we woke up a couple hours later, we were inseparable. I don't know why it worked this time, but something clicked.
Kimmy Kirkwood and Will Stacey are in a Relationship
I was all set to study abroad in Italy that fall, and Will had volunteered as a combat replacement with another Marine unit in Afghanistan. Over the next couple weeks, we spent every moment together. On the day I left, he laughingly announced that because he wasn't sick of me yet, he thought we were in this for the long haul.
Our goodbye was really difficult. We were still in the honeymoon phase of our relationship, and now we wouldn't see each other for four months. He was worried I would meet someone else in Italy, and I was worried he wouldn't make it home at all. But we parted, and Will left a week later to Now Zad, Helmand Province, Afghanistan for three months.
Communication was complicated. His satellite phone couldn't call my Italian number, he didn't have any Internet access, so we resorted to writing letters. It sounds romantic, but Will's mail route was frequently canceled because it was too dangerous for mail carriers to travel there. When the mail delivery was running, it could take a month for a note to reach him.
Still, I wrote him everyday and would send my notes in a bundle of about ten at a time. The elderly postman at the Florence post office took such a liking to Will and I that he never let me pay for a single postage, envelope, pen or paper.
That fall, Will's unit got a computer and we were able to connect on Facebook, which became our main method of communication during this and all future deployments.
Will returned home safely in December 2008. I arrived about three weeks later, and we kicked off the longest period time we'd ever spent together, 10 months.
This first year of our relationship was sweet, and full of firsts. We were so excited to just be together, go on fancy dates, move in together and turn 21. He always joked that I was dating an older man, as he was born a whopping 10 days before me, something he reminded me of constantly for the entire week and a half that he was 21 and I was still 20.
Will lit up any room he walked into. I was a better person when we were together; he brought out a side of me I had no idea existed. I wasn't the only person he had this effect on. Every person's life he touched was better for it, whether it was only for a minute at a party, or working day-in and day-out with the Marines around him. My brother always says that Will was so amazing for having such an intense job and never taking himself too seriously, whereas the rest of us take our relatively frivolous lives way too seriously.
Privately, this was also when Will was having problems that arose from his Afghanistan deployment. It wasn't anything life threatening or overly worrisome, and we worked through it together. Still, it was hard to watch him struggle to choke down intense anger over little things that should have passed after a moment of frustration. Instead, it would build and intensify for hours. He also couldn't be in crowds; we went to a concert at the end of the summer and had to leave pretty quickly.
It wasn't always fun, but it brought us really close together and I learned so much about him. I stayed awake for hours just listening to him talk about everything he had seen and experienced. At the time, I never imagined he'd have to go back to Afghanistan, so I was able to listen without fear of what these details could mean for the future.
In late September 2009, Will began another seven-month deployment in the South Pacific, to train with different militaries in foreign countries.
About two months in, I got a message from him saying he was being pulled out to do something he couldn't tell me about and would be out of contact for a few weeks. A few weeks turned into more than two months of no contact. I learned later that he was sent off the coast of Yemen, and didn't see land for more than 100 days.
Most of his time was spent confined to his quarters, and all communications to the outside world were shut off. The ship's computers couldn't access Facebook, and he wasn't able to send me any messages until he was back on land.
In April of that year Will returned, and we were given another wonderful homecoming. His dad was able to come with him on the last leg of his trip, from Hawaii to San Diego, and all of our friends came down to celebrate his return.
On May 25, 2010, Will surprised me with a little fury bundle of love named Otis.
We had talked about getting a dog for a while, and Will wanted me to have someone to be with while he was gone. I had done some research and was constantly sending him pictures of different dog breeds while he was deployed.
The surprise was a total bust; he tried to tell me that he had to pick a friend up at the airport. He did a terrible job lying, and I knew exactly what was going on, but I never let on and would like to think I did a pretty good job at acting surprised.
Kimmy Kirkwood got a Cavachon Named Otis
Kimmy and Will Orange, CA
During that summer, Will and I shared a tiny studio apartment in Orange, Cali.
We had so much fun going out and spending time with friends. It felt good to act like normal 20-somethings for a while, untouched by separation. We were finally able to celebrate his favorite holiday, Independence Day, visit my brother in Los Angeles, and go to my little brother's boot camp graduation in San Diego.
This was also the summer Will decided to re-enlist. It was something he had talked a lot about so it didn't come as a big surprise, but it was really hard on us. I really wanted to move on with our lives, and not deal with more deployments. But one of the things that I loved most about Will was his passion for his career. He felt his job wasn't done, and was not ready to leave the military.
I respected him for that, and didn't fight it. I would have followed him anywhere, and supported him through anything as long as I knew he truly cared about it. There was never a moment that I didn't know how much he loved me, or what I meant to him. This was something he had to do.
He was meritoriously promoted to Sergeant before re-enlisting, which was a testament to the quality of Marine he had become, and also volunteered to be part of an Embedded Training Team with a unit in the National Afghan Army. His deployment was supposed to start in January 2011, but was moved up to October 2010. It was really hard for me to see him off again, as he had only gotten back 6 months earlier.
Kimmy Santa Monica
Will Now Zad, Afghanistan
But he was gone again, and about a week afterward, I moved up to Santa Monica, where I had gotten my first job out of college. It was the first time that I had no Will, and no friends around me. Having Otis was such a godsend, but I was really lonely.
We found out while Will was in Afghanistan that his regular unit at home would also be deploying there in September 2011. He had detached from his unit to go on this deployment, but decided to return to his battalion when he arrived back in the states. He had the option of going on a different deployment that wasn't combat related, but he knew his battalion needed him, so after returning from his fourth deployment in three years, he would train with his unit and go back to Now Zad, Afghanistan, the place he was deployed to while I was in Italy. It would be his final deployment, but it was still an incredibly dangerous place and the thought of it was terrifying.
We had talked about getting engaged that summer, but it didn't seem like the right time. We thought it would be better to get engaged when he returned from Afghanistan, a perfect celebration of making it through four difficult deployments together.
We didn't see many other people that summer. Will and I spent a lot of time just the two of us and Otis. Will's family came and visited us for a week. It was so great to spend time with them. When my parents came to town on a weekend visit, it was very clear that Will and I were already a part of one another's families, married or not.
We went to Santa Barbara to celebrate our third anniversary. Will had just gotten back from training, and was leaving for his deployment in less than a month.
Kimmy Kirkwood and Will Stacey have been together for three years
Mentally preparing for this deployment was hard on him. We talked a lot about how exhausted he was. It had been a long few years and the wear and tear on his body and mind was really apparent. He had hardly gotten a break since his first deployment in 2008, and I was really worried something would happen to him. He was so drained and burnt out, the light inside him, the one that was so inspiring to me, was barely flickering.
I didn't go with him to drop him off at base. Instead, we said goodbye in our apartment. Maybe it was because of the heaviness of the situation, or that this was our first private goodbye, but Will and I stood hugging each other, crying. I didn't stop crying until I fell asleep.
By this time, Will and I had spent more time apart than together. My brother had moved into our spare bedroom, to help with the cost of rent and be there for me, but I still felt frustrated and alone.
My mom said that every time Will was gone, she noticed that I seemed to be on pause. Like I would be somewhere with people, laugh with them, talk with them, but there was something about me that just wasn't there.
It wasn't until Will reached the halfway point of his deployment in Now Zad that he brightened up. His messages became much happier and hopeful. He had just received a position as a school instructor on Camp Pendleton, teaching classes on specific military tactics, a job that he would start when he got back to the U.S. and keep until his time with the Marines was up. Then he planned to go back to school. We had talked about him studying history, as he was a complete history buff and knew practically everything about American History. We also had other thoughts, like opening a Bed & Breakfast somewhere and living a nice quite life. I wanted him to use the GI Bill and go to school overseas, so we could live in London or Italy for a few years.
We could see the rest of our lives in front of us, we just had to get through the next few months. After four deployments in three and half years, we could finally get engaged and plan a future. Our calendars wouldn't be paper countdowns ever again.
January 31, 2012
My world fell apart on Jan. 31, 2012. I was walking Otis before work, when Will's dad called. He had been hit by an IED on patrol and was killed. After getting off the phone with him, I blacked out for a few minutes before calling my family. It was the worst phone call any of us had ever received. It was his mother's birthday, and just 54 days before he was supposed to return home forever.
I called one of our best friends, Paul, to ask him to spread the word to our close friends in Seattle. When he asked if he could post something on Facebook, I asked him to hold off for the time being. I wasn't ready to let the world in yet. Once the news landed there, the fact that I would never again hear from the love of my life would become so much more real. Will's mom eventually had to share the news on Facebook because everyone kept wishing her a happy birthday and it was making her ill.
Right before I boarded my plane home, I posted the only thing I could think of, shut my phone off, and cried the whole flight home.
When I turned my phone back on, it beeped for the next few minutes. A flood of messages, posts, calls and texts of condolences and love filled my screen.
Over the next couple days, weeks, months, I would post how I was feeling, photos and screenshots of Will and I, parts of our relationship I'd never shared with anyone. I also received dozens of messages a day. People seeing how I was doing, letting me know how strong I was being, how sorry they were for me, that they were thinking of the Staceys and of me. The amount of love and support I felt from my Facebook community was astounding. It had become a place for my grief, for Will's memory and a place where I was able to share and relive my relationship with him.
After a few weeks, I wrote him one last message on Facebook. It just said “I love you,” but when I pressed send our last conversation popped up above it. I read it, and continued reading everything else. There were a lot of tears, followed by laughs and more tears. I felt my heart break again and again, but I realized how amazing it was to have this reminder of who we were together. Our entire relationship was documented, like a digital scrapbook with letters, conversations, photos, and videos.
I started sporadically posting things that he had said. I would get messages from people saying they loved seeing what our life together was like, so I continued doing it.
Having this archive of our relationship means the world to me. I fully regret not marrying Will when I had the chance, and it bothers me that he will forever only be known my “boyfriend,” when really, he was my entire world.
Sometimes when I'm lonely, I go back and read everything he sent to me. I didn't think about it much then, but having it all in one place took on a complete new meaning when I lost Will forever.
In Memory of Will Stacey
March 1, 1988 to January 31, 2012