Navy Capt. Errol Campbell and his wife Marine Corps Col. Tamara Campbell can basically give thanks to Thanksgiving for introducing them to each other back when they were both students at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1993.
Errol’s parents were overseas that year — his stepdad was serving in Rota, Spain — and since he wouldn’t be returning to his family home in Florida, a friend invited Errol to spend the holiday with him in Boston. Turns out that friend was from Tamara’s high school and he had also offered to give her a ride home.
“I spent a decent amount of time getting to know her over Thanksgiving, and that’s how it started,” said Errol, who graduated from the naval academy in 1995 and now serves as Program Manager for Air to Air Missile Systems (PMA-259) at NAS Patuxent River.
But Tamara was a freshman and plebes are not supposed to date. Besides, she was busy focusing on her education.
“He was two years ahead of me and we ended up being part of the Midshipmen Black Studies Club, so we did interact socially, but we didn’t start dating until his senior year,” said Tamara, a 1997 academy graduate who recently took over as Program Manager for Aviation Tactical Aircraft Protection Systems (PMA-272).
They continued dating while Tamara finished her degree and Errol finished flight school. By the time Tamara graduated, Errol was with the Fleet Replacement Squadron in San Diego. Two years later, they were married.
Making it work in the early years
Military spouses face unique challenges, especially spouses like the Campbells who work in two different branches of the military. Although the DoD has a co-location policy where they try to keep spouses within the same geographical region, it’s easier if your military occupational specialties are similar. Ultimately, it’s up to the service members to work out the logistics, and the Campbells did that from the moment they got engaged, because Errol was supposed to go to Florida and Tamara to Cherry Point, North Carolina.
“As I finished [flight school] training in San Diego [flying the S-3B Viking] the original squadron I was slated to go to, where I’d be deploying, was back on the east coast,” Errol noted. “A classmate of mine who knew our situation opted to go to Jacksonville instead so I could stay on the west coast in Coronado knowing my fiancée was hoping to come there as well.”
As Errol squared things with his Navy detailer, Tamara worked closely with her Marine Corps monitor.
“I was able to show him places in California where I thought I could go and they were able to switch my orders [to Pendleton] so we could be in California together,” she said. “It worked out; we were lucky.”
Starting a family, dealing with distance
There were a few times in their careers when they were not as lucky, including a stint fairly early on, after both had finished post graduate school in California.
Errol had transitioned to flying F-14s and reported to Oceana while Tamara filled a billet in Quantico for a three-year period. By 2005, they had welcomed a son, Jordan, and Errol remembers him spending “a lot of time in a car seat driving back and forth on I-95 and 64.” Young Jordan also spent a fair amount of time on airplanes.
“I was working an acquisition job and every six weeks I’d go to California,” Tamara said. “During the first year of his life, he would travel with me to the west coast until he was older, then he’d go to dad when I traveled.”
The Campbells knew they wanted to have children, but wanted to be somewhat established in their careers first.
“We wanted to have children at a fairly young age so we could enjoy our time growing with them,” Tamara explained, “but I felt I needed to prove myself professionally first so people understood my work ethic and trusted me when it came time to make family decisions.”
After that tour, Errol had originally received orders to report to Pax River, thinking there potentially was an opportunity for Tamara to come to Pax as well, but the Marine Corps sent her overseas to Okinawa, Japan. Their son was about three at the time and a teenage nephew was also staying with them. Fortunately, Errol worked once again with his detailer and they were able to find him a billet there so he could go along with his family.
“But it came with strings attached,” he said. “She was supposed to go to Okinawa for a year by herself and the only option available to me was going for three years; but it turned out fine, as it ended up being a great three-year tour for both of us.”
Just as they were making the move to Okinawa, the couple learned Tamara was pregnant with twins.
“I had just arrived at a new duty station and I had to be open and tell my boss; that’s a little scary, as I hadn’t known them much more than a month,” she added. “I was working with men who’d never worked with a female Marine and there I was, pregnant. They had their own families, but it was a different experience to show them I could still do my job.”
She must’ve made an impression, even bringing out the softer side of her Marine coworkers.
“When I had the babies [in 2008], my boss and the entire shop of guys came to the hospital and brought me a present,” Tamara recalled. “I’ll never forget that; they wanted to bless our family.”
Tamara nursed all three of her children for the first year of their lives, but had started traveling again before the twins were weaned.
“I thought I’d stockpiled enough milk for the twins when I left for the Philippines for a three-week exercise, but Errol called me one night and said he was running out of milk and that was a problem,” Tamara said. “Because he worked with one of the maintenance squadrons on base in Okinawa, he was able to connect with someone bringing parts who flew back a cooler of milk I’d been pumping and storing. After that, we called the guy our ‘milk fairy.’”
Putting family first while serving
The Campbells know they can be called to deploy at any time, as needed, and they’ve planned for the myriad situations that could occur as a result.
“Being a dual military couple, we are required to maintain a Family Care Plan detailing financial responsibility, where our kids would go, who would make decisions for their education, medical, etc.,” Errol explained. “We’ve been required to update that with every duty station, and we’ve had conversations with close friends and family, should that situation arise.”
“Not just for a deployment, but in both of our jobs as we’ve made changes and gone about different assignments, we’ve had to set up a plan when neither of us was going to be home,” Tamara said. “We’ve sometimes had to set up plans to have extra babysitters around just to provide transportation [for the kids].”
Though Errol has consistently remained at Pax River since 2010, Tamara found herself stationed again in Virginia and D.C. over the years. She remembers it being harder on one of her younger sons, who had formed a strong attachment.
“Being in a car four hours a day driving back and forth is painful, but after three years of not being here during the week [while stationed at Quantico 2013-2016], I knew the kids needed to see me at night. It was worth the sacrifice. We’ve worked through the challenges and the kids are resilient, they make friends easily, and they’ve been around a lot of different people.”
Establishing family traditions, rituals
The family tries to eat dinner together as often as possible. On weekends, dad cooks breakfast for everyone, and when the kids were younger, they watched a lot of movies together.
“Thanksgiving is big,” Tamara added. “The kids help us prep and cook.”
With three sons now involved in sports, family activities often involve trips in different directions shuttling the boys to and from their various practices and games, although COVID-19 helped slow that down.
“It was a recharge, an opportunity to have some downtime, to have a weekend with all of us at home,” Errol noted. “It allowed us to get more family time and that was great.”
The Campbells keep a shared family calendar that helps track who will be where and when.
“We note when we’re traveling so the boys are aware and they’ll also know in advance when someone else is coming to stay with them,” Tamara said. “They can put something on the calendar too. It provides them a level of control so they feel they have a voice within the family.”
Competition, encouragement, support
Tamara said she and Errol have always been a bit competitive with each other, going as far back as the academy; and although they disagree ideologically from time to time, she knows they’ve been good for each other and credits Errol for being her champion.
“He was always a listening ear and I fell in love with his heart,” Tamara said. “He would hear me out and challenge me. One thing I found when we started dating is that we were better for one another; our grades were better because we were competitive. I’m not the most vocal of us and he takes up that role when it comes to my accomplishments. He’ll shine a light on what I’m doing and I definitely appreciate my cheerleader.”
“She’s right,” Errol agreed. “We’ve struck a good balance with the two of us driving each other [“and sometimes driving each other crazy,” quipped Tamara in the background]. We sat down and talked about our goals and it’s been a healthy balance of pushing and encouraging. It may not have always been easy, or what we wanted to hear, but sometimes it’s what you need to hear. It’s what I would expect from my lifelong partner.”
Even their individual program offices somewhat compete with each other. Tamara’s PMA- 272 program acquires, tests, buys and sustains electronic warfare systems like chaff, flares, decoys, and jammers to protect aircraft, while Errol’s PMA-259 fields and buys short, medium and long range air missiles across the Navy and Marine Corps to arm aircraft.
“Ironically, my program buys missiles to shoot airplanes down and her program tries to protect aircraft from being shot down,” Errol noted.
Advice for others, lessons learned
One thing the Campbells would tell another military couple thinking of starting a family is that it’s absolutely worth it, but there’s never a perfect time to begin.
“I didn’t know if I was going to do a career in the military, but I did know I wanted to have children,” Tamara stated. “I didn’t want to turn around and regret not having a family within the timeframe I wanted, so that has to be something you prioritize and communicate.”
Without always having the luxury of family nearby, the Campbells relied on friends and word of mouth to learn what resources were available wherever they were living.
“Fleet and Family Support is a great stop,” Tamara said. “They have a multitude of services and information available. Jordan’s first daycare was off base in a facility we found through Child and Youth Services. And the Budget for Baby class through Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society was incredibly helpful talking about things we didn’t know we needed or had to do.”
Errol also mentioned the Chaplains Religious Enrichment Development Operation, better known as CREDO, as a valuable resource.
“In the midst of life becoming hectic, we took advantage of a [free] weekend in Virginia Beach to take time to focus on us, using CREDO,” he said. “Knowing those resources are there is important, but the advice I’d give is to take advantage of them. They’ve been beneficial to us.”
“Bloom where you are planted” is a saying repeated by Tamara, who claims one thing she and Errol have learned over time is that a place may not have always been where they wanted to go, but turned into the right place for them to be.
“Learn how to thrive in any situation but also ensure your life is not just focused on the uniform you wear; it’s a large part of who we are but it’s not all we are,” Tamara said. “And learn to ask for help. Just because something is a challenge doesn’t mean it can’t turn into an opportunity.”
Errol says he received an important piece of advice from a squadron XO when he was still a young lieutenant: Don’t become the person who makes decisions based on what’s best for your career. Your priorities should be faith and family; everything else will fall into place.
“Make your decisions with those two things in mind — keeping faith and family first; if you’re performing in your job, the career pieces will take care of themselves,” Errol said. “That’s been the guidance I’ve followed along the way and I’d say things have worked out pretty well so far.”