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Military couple prepares to spend the holidays apart for first time

It took everything for Los Banos resident Emily Atkins to not look back as she drove away from her fiancé and U.S. Marine Dylan Wooldridge before he was deployed to Kuwait at the end of September.

“Somebody told me that when you actually have to leave them, you say goodbye and you leave. Don’t look back, don’t turn around, don’t look for them – just drive off,” said Emily as she fought back tears. “I was driving and I kept saying to myself, ‘don’t turn around’ and I didn’t but I looked in my rearview mirror and Dylan was walking after my car in the parking lot.”

This would mark the last time Emily would see Dylan, whose military occupational specialty is aviation electronics, for at least seven months – a time period which would have otherwise included their first holidays spent together as an engaged couple.

“I know it’s going to suck come Thanksgiving and Christmas,” said Emily. “Everyone does everything together, so I feel like it’s going to be especially difficult because everywhere you go there’s just going to be reminders of that person just not there.”

Emily and Dylan’s love story is one that spans years, beginning when she was in elementary school. At the time, her parents, Deborah and Pat Atkins met Dylan’s parents, Stacey and Charles Wooldridge, through a mutual friend and quickly introduced their family members — including Emily and Dylan — to each other for the first time.

Although Emily felt that there was always something between her and Dylan, she never acted on it because their families were so close.

“They were like an extended family, so I didn’t want to mess anything up,” said Emily, “but there was always something between us and he’s even told me now that he’s always liked me.”

Emily said that she and Dylan were always at different places throughout their lives, and it wasn’t until he returned from boot camp in December 2014 that she finally realized her true feelings for him. They started dating two months later.

Dylan proposed to Emily in July of this year when the two were vacationing in Ramona. Emily remembered the morning of the proposal vividly as one that included killing red ants that invaded their cottage rental and taking a small hike up the top of a nearby hill.

“He did it when we got to the top of the hill and I remember it as another one of those surreal moments because I had thought about it happening so many times. I don’t even remember everything that he said, but I remember him saying how he wanted to kill ants with me for the rest of his life,” laughed Emily.

Emily said that rather on dwelling on the fact that she and Dylan will be apart for the holidays, she plans to close the distance by sending him care packages and writing him letters. Additionally, as a science teacher at Los Banos Junior High School, she plans to ask her seventh grade students to write him Christmas cards, since they got a chance to meet him when he was on leave in September.

She also plans to spend plenty of time with her family in Pollock Pines and Dylan’s family, who she currently resides with in Los Banos until she moves in with Dylan after their wedding.

“His mom was kind of saying how she didn’t want to do anything big because Dylan wasn’t going to be there, but I want to do the normal stuff,” said Emily. “I want it be normal since him being away is not normal.”

Despite the ten-hour difference between Los Banos and Kuwait, Emily said that she and Dylan still manage to talk every day – whether it’s through text messages, phone calls or video chats – and the couple has just set their wedding date for July of next year, something Emily said will help the months go by as she waits for her fiancé to return.

“One thing that I always keep in mind is I get something that not a lot of other people get,” said Emily. “My mom said that when my dad came home from war, that was a better feeling than her wedding day and not everyone gets to have that feeling. So anytime I’m feeling upset or lonely, I think about that.

“On top of that, when he comes home, we’ll get to get married and start our life together,” she added.