Living apart for months at a time is one of the many challenges military couples are forced to endure. Entrepreneur Lakesha and U.S. Marine Corps gunnery sergeant Deonte Cole, who’ve been married since 2002, have learned over the years that constant communication, patience and trust are important tools to building a fruitful union. While the Coles may be confident in the way they handle the unavoidable separations, that doesn’t mean there weren’t some rough growing pains along the way. “This life isn’t for everyone. It takes a resilient person to be a military wife,” says Lakesha.
The Portsmouth, Virginia native started dating Deonte while she was attending North Carolina A&T State University and he was stationed four hours away at Camp Lejeune. They dated throughout Deonte’s six-month deployment. Long-distance love was all they knew.
“We were apart from the moment we started dating. It was good to have that support, and refreshing to know that you leave for six months and that person is still there for you,” says Deonte. Still, he couldn’t wait to spend time with Lakesha when his deployment came to an end. “I knew I wanted to marry her before I left for my next trip. I didn’t want to go away again without her being my wife,” he admits.
Two weeks before Deonte was due to leave, he proposed. To save time, they got married at the justice of the peace with plans for a bigger wedding in the future, and moved into a new apartment in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Saying goodbye wasn’t easy, but they looked forward to living out their newlywed moments at the end of the six months.
But if there is one thing military families are accustomed to, it’s plans changing at a moment’s notice.
“I started out in Africa in Djibouti and Somalia, and then Kosovo,” explains Deonte. “That’s during the first initial push into Iraq in 2002, and the war started. We were on the ship and it turned around and headed to Iraq.” Six months away from his new wife turned into 11 long months.
Lakesha was busy planning Deonte’s coming home party when she got the news about him sailing into the Iraq war. “I read about it on the front page of the paper,” reveals Lakesha. “I just started crying, because our only sense of our country going to war at that point was Desert Storm, and we were young then. I had no real concept of what that meant for us. You think of people dying and you see all those images on TV.” Looking back, Lakesha believes staying glued to round-the-clock TV news coverage of the war was “the worst thing [she] could have done.”
She admits to “freaking out” at times, wondering if Deonte would ever make it back home. But she thanks her fellow military wives for helping her get through those moments of uncertainty. “I built a support system that helped a great deal,” says Lakesha. “There were lonely sleepless nights of crying myself to sleep, but with my support group, we were there to hold each other down. The emotional cycle of deployment before, during and after war is draining. There’s a range of intense emotions and feelings—anger, fear, loneliness, sadness, overwhelmed helplessness—while taking care of the home front. I had to let him know I was okay at home, so he can focus. I had to get to a place where I would be okay.”
“Being in Iraq was hard and very challenging,” says Deonte, who made it back home to Lakesha in the spring of 2003. “I was thinking about her all the time, but I engulfed myself into what I was doing. The best way to make it back to your loved ones is to focus on what you are doing. I couldn’t wait to be with her.”
For many in the military, while the return home is greatly anticipated, it doesn’t always mean the transition is seamless. Deonte was all too familiar with the horror stories of marines coming home and all the discomfort that comes with their homecoming.
“You need that time to decompress. Lakesha made it very comfortable for me to come home, and I am grateful for that,” says Deonte. Being apart also had its advantages. “It was a perfect way to build a relationship,” he says. “We got to know more about each other and build a friendship through the phone, emails, snail mail and Skype. I think that period helped us strengthen our relationship.”
It was 1999 when they first met at a party in North Carolina; while Lakesha was visiting her mother for spring break. When Deonte spotted Lakesha at the party, he wasted no time walking up to her. “When I looked at her, she had an air of confidence and maturity that was different. I had been in North Carolina for a while, but hadn’t met anyone that sparked my interest until I saw her. She was beautiful,” shares Deonte.
“I tend to like guys with a bit of swagger, and he has a lot of swag. He was well spoken and well-mannered and didn’t pressure me to dance or talk,” says Lakesha. She felt instantly at ease with Deonte. They had a great conversation and shared a dance or two. Approaching Lakesha was one thing, but Deonte was nervous about giving her his number. “I wrote my number on a piece of paper and before she left I stuck it in her back pocket and said, ‘If you like, call me sometime,’ ” recalls Deonte.
Lakesha went back to school and Deonte went back to camp. It would be six months before she’d finally make that call. “I was seeing someone when he slipped his number in my pocket. The relationship was fading out and I decided to give Deonte a call when it was completely over,” says Lakesha. The holidays were approaching and Lakesha wondered if Deonte would be around for dinner. “I called and the number still worked!”
“I thought I would never hear from her,” says Deonte. “I was hopeful because we had a great conversation and it seemed like we had great chemistry. When she called, I was so surprised she still had my number!”
For their first date, they went on a double date with friends to a dollar movie and ate at Waffle House. “I had a great time. We laughed a lot,” says Lakesha. The two then started to hang out regularly. They were falling for each other. “I was pretty confident by the time I left to go back to school that I wanted this to lead to a relationship,” says Lakesha.
After dating for two years, marriage was the inevitable next chapter in their love story. “She was strong and focused. Those were the qualities I always wanted in a wife,” says Deonte. They shared the same goals and they were both career and family driven. “Within the first year, I knew we would get married,” adds Lakesha.
They renewed their vows on a golf course (Deonte’s favorite pastime) in front of 50 of their closest family and friends on their fifth year anniversary. “Marriage means a forever partner of love and commitment,” says Lakesha.
Following Deonte’s last deployment in Iraq, he chose a unit that would allow him to stay home with Lakesha. They lived in Northern Virginia from 2003 to 2006. During those three years, the Coles got to make up for lost time.
“It was great getting to explore our new life together,” says Deonte. Three years into their marriage, they had their daughter Kailey Mariah (9), and then Kirby Marie (9 months) followed. Deonte describes himself as a “firm but fair parent who nurtures my children’s confidence, education and creativity.” As far as Lakesha, her self-described parenting style is more laid-back. “I’m also fair, involved, loving and attentive to my children’s needs and wants,” she expands.
While Deonte was building a career for himself in the Marine Corps, Lakesha was finding her place. “How do we achieve our American dream? That is what I was asking myself. I was establishing my career so we can do all the things we want to as a family,” she says. “I did some writing, worked for the federal government and worked for some nonprofits. I’ve had some great jobs.”
But it wasn’t until Lakesha launched her own business in 2010 that she discovered what she was truly passionate about. “She Swank | Too is a curated lifestyle shop for girls. My dream-to-reality of owning a boutique started as an idea six years ago while sitting in my tiny on-base apartment in California, unemployed with a 1-year-old, a deployed Marine spouse and all of my family 2,000-plus miles away,” says Lakesha. “We launched in 2010 and welcomed our first customer shortly after. Today the She Swank | Too brand has traveled to happy customers in all 50 states and four countries, leading to the opening of our first pop-up shop in Okinawa, Japan.”
She Swank | Too debuted their first children’s line in 2011 to introduce entrepreneurship to their daughter Kailey “in a way that was fun and teachable for a 5-year-old.” Lakesha is also a volunteer advisor to the Military Spouse Business Association and serves on the board of the Military Spouse Behavioral Health Clinicians.
Through her thriving business, Lakesha has become a mentor to fellow military spouses by helping them discover their entrepreneurship spirit. When the Coles moved to Okinawa two years ago, Lakesha took notice of the lack of opportunities for military spouses.
“I came here with one goal in mind: to expand and test my business in a way I had never done before. The path I created allowed me to do such while opening the door for others,” explains Lakesha. “To date, my platform has assisted over 50 military spouses start or grow their own businesses.” Her selfless commitment to mentoring military spouses won her the 2014 Military Spouse Award and caught the attention of NBC’s Today show, who interviewed Lakesha about her work.
Deonte couldn’t be more proud of his wife. “Lakesha is fiercely driven and doesn’t let anything or anyone get in the way of her goals. Being married to her is easy. We are the right people together.”
The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn’t always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at [email protected] (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she’s not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she’s writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and magazines. Check out her work and blog at AlexandraPhanor.com.