During the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Richardson family faced a difficult dilemma. James and Laura Richardson, Army officers with promising careers, both received orders to deploy to Iraq.
They needed to find care for their daughter, Lauren, who had just entered her teenage years. The Richardsons had prepared a family care plan in case that happened. They made arrangements for their daughter to live with Laura's grandparents in Colorado and go to the same high school her mother had attended.
Now the first female general to ever command U.S. Army North (Fifth Army) at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Laura and her husband have spent more than three decades adapting to frequent moves and changing assignments, like the deployments to Iraq. Through the changes, the Richardsons both reached the rank of lieutenant general.
The Richardsons told the story of their 33-year marriage during a panel discussion at the Joint Women's Leadership Symposium in Washington, D.C., Aug. 22.
"I think it's important to share the challenges that you have and also the rewarding things that come out of it as well," Laura said. "And share your experiences. We didn't have necessarily anybody to share dual military experiences or tell my husband and I, 'hey, try this.'"
Lt. Gen. Laura Riachardson is responsible for all the Title 10 troops stationed along the Southwest border. The command's responsibilities include homeland defense and Defense Support of Civil Authorities for national emergencies, including hurricanes. Lt. Gen. James Richardson serves as the deputy commanding general of Army Futures Command, a new four-star command responsible for modernizing the force in the backdrop of a growing technology community.
Army North's headquarters at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston is an 80-mile drive along Interstate 35 to James' office in downtown Austin. Admittedly, some assignments forced the Richardsons to take long commutes or live separately on occasion when time and distance became too great.
As a dual-military family, they have overcome more hurdles than a typical military family.
"The compromises that we made -- both of us did that -- really made us more marketable as officers in the Army," Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson said. "Because we didn't have the typical assignments that just a straight helicopter pilot would have. I think as we got higher in the rank that really paid off."
Her resume includes a wide range of assignments from serving as military advisor to former vice president Al Gore to deputy commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, and as deputy commanding general of Forces Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Reaching the rank of three-star general didn't come without its hardships. The couple said military families can help weather momentous life changes like they did through careful preparation and reaching out to the Army's vast resources.
The Army currently is in the midst of revamping its Soldier and Family Readiness Groups to be more inclusive to different types of families as well as single Soldiers. The groups help connect Soldiers and families to available services, including child care, as well as providing command news and information to families.
At times, duty has forced them apart. But they tried to make the transitions as smooth as possible by carefully selecting assignments that didn't distance themselves too far from each other. And they said the Army attempted to accommodate the couple by assigning them to installations in close proximity when possible. Sometimes they had long commutes, though.
"You want to stay together as much as you can," James said. "When you get up to our ranks, it's hard to stay together. The higher you go in the service, the harder it is to be together."
The Richardsons also researched their new installations and duty stations ahead of time. First, they would interview possible childcare candidates, and then they started house hunting close to their childcare provider. After moving, they tried to assimilate themselves into the local community and enrolled their daughter in social activities like sports.
Both aviators by trade, the Richardsons met in the mid 1980s in Korea shortly after Laura earned her commission as a helicopter pilot. She had been working as a platoon leader and company commander when she met James, a fellow aviator.
James said he would share his career challenges and triumphs during night-time discussions with Laura. Before moving to Austin, Richardson served as a special advisor to Gen. James McConville, now the chief of staff of the Army, during McConville's stint as vice chief of staff.
James has also served as deputy commanding general of III Corps, and as the commander of Army Aviation and Missile Command at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. The Richardsons said supporting each other throughout their careers proved advantageous for them as a couple.
"I would not be where I am today without being married to her," James said, now a master Army aviator who has commanded Soldiers in combat six times. "It's Team Richardson, it really is. And that's how you have to operate. She knows what I'm going through. I know what she's going through every day. So if you have to come home at 9 or 10 o'clock at night, she understands.
"It's not about me. It's not about her. It's about the team. And that's how we got through. We've communicated. We've helped each other in our careers as we've moved up."
Their daughter, now 30 years old, has a child of her own.