Everett native defers Army duty for family duty

A typical toddler, Carter Willis was making some noise.

“He’s ramming his shopping cart into his highchair,” said his mother, Jennifer Cabanayan-Willis. “He has my energy. He’s awesome. We call him our little tornado.”

From her home at Fort Bragg, N.C., Carter’s young mom talked Wednesday about family, duty and how the arrival of her first child changed everything.

“I guess life happens,” she said.

Remember her?

Three years ago, in August of 2005, I met 18-year-old Jennifer Cabanayan at the U.S. Army Recruiting Center near Everett Mall. In 2004, she’d been chosen Miss Everett Teen USA, a preliminary to the Miss Teen USA program. Her Army enlistment made Cabanayan front-page news in The Herald.

“This is the right thing to do,” she said in 2005. “I cannot wait for that moment of putting on a uniform.”

The Everett woman wore her uniform with pride. After basic combat training at Fort Jackson, S.C., Pvt. Cabanayan went on to physical training at Fort Lee, Va., and then to airborne jump school at Fort Benning, Ga. She hoped to follow in the boot steps of her grandfather, the late Otis Saylor of Stanwood, who had served as a paratrooper in Vietnam.

At Fort Lee, she met the man she would marry. Now with the 647th Quartermaster Company, Army Spc. Ray Willis was a class ahead of her in parachute rigger school.

“I was so independent. I wasn’t going to date another person in the Army,” she said. “I didn’t want to be one of those girls who fall in love in a war.”

Life happens. Love happens. She and Willis were married at Fort Benning in 2006. When Cabanayan-Willis learned she was pregnant, she made a hard decision. Although her goal had been Army service, she chose family — for now.

Cabanayan-Willis said the Army gave her a choice: serve out her three years of active duty plus five years in the reserves, or take an honorable discharge due to pregnancy. She opted for the latter, but still intends to serve her country.

Her plan is to join the Army National Guard in October 2009, but not before a sweet addition to her family. In January, Cabanayan-Willis is due to deliver their second child, a daughter. Her husband, meanwhile, has re-enlisted and is switching from rigger duties to infantry.

“He’s going to be a lifer, ­forever in the Army,” she said.

A switch to infantry will likely bring her husband an overseas deployment early next year, and more promotion opportunities, Cabanayan-Willis said. They’re seeking a transfer to Fort Lewis, which would bring her closer to home in her husband’s absence.

“Ray just really wants to go,” said Paulene Saylor, Cabanayan-Willis’ mother, who lives in Everett. “If they get stationed at Fort Lewis, she and the babies would be close. She’s homesick.”

Moving from military service into a supportive role has been a big adjustment. “It’s hard being prior-service. I’m living the Army wife life,” Cabanayan-Willis said. “I wash his uniform and listen to his stories. Every day, it’s hard not to put on that uniform.”

Still, she knows their little ones will only be young once. “I wanted the experience my mom had, to be able to stay home with my children,” she said.

Cabanayan-Willis has watched friends endure their spouses’ deployments. She knows that time is coming for her.

“Military families, especially spouses, hold everything together at home,” she said. When her husband is gone for training, even for a few months, Cabanayan-Willis said their baby doesn’t react to his dad when he first comes back. “The moms and dad, the wives and children, it’s hard sometimes,” she said.

Even so, someday Cabanayan-Willis hopes to be back in uniform, and to serve her country wherever she’s needed. She’s sure her turn will come.

Compelled to join the war against terrorism after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Cabanayan-Willis said that today it’s more personal. “Those soldiers are my friends and family,” she said.

And the mother who thought she was sending a daughter off to war now wants the best for a growing family.

“They’re happy. They know what they want,” Saylor said. “They both want the military life, and everything that comes with it.”

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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