A Veteran Couple
By Barbara Gautreaux
There are about 84,000 military-married-to-military couples in the U.S. Armed Forces. Imagine how many more meet after they are discharged, with common interests and experiences based on their time serving in the military, their training and seeing the world.
Tiffany Lilliman and Chris Grevemberg married after being discharged. She was a Sergeant in the Army and he a Sergeant in the Marines. They both have only positive things to say about their time in the military, even though both were injured, she while serving during time of war, he during a training exercise. To honor all veterans this month of November, which includes Veterans Day Nov. 11, we salute the Grevembergs who chose South Louisiana to raise a family. God Bless them all.
A Lot In Common
Tiffany and Chris met through mutual friends while living in New Orleans. A friend wanted to set Tiffany up with Chris the day she broke up with her boyfriend and became single. “I didn’t want to meet anyone but he insisted, saying ‘You need to meet this guy, he was Marine Corps, he has a lot in common with you, he’s disabled,’ so we met.”
Chris had seen her picture online and wanted to be introduced. However, he didn’t have much to say during that first set up and Tiffany wasn’t sure. He’s just shy, give him a chance, the friend told Tiffany. “So I did and then we spent every day together,” reveals Tiffany.
That friend is now the godfather to their infant daughter Keira Annabelle Grevemberg, who is almost 3-months-old. She was born at the VA hospital in New Orleans. Because of Tiffany’s leg, fractured and torn at the hip in Afghanistan, the baby was born via caesarian section. “It is a long way to drive when you are in labor,” recalls Chris.
Even though New Orleans is two hours away, the couple wanted to move to Coteau after they married. “Chris wanted to move back where he grew up to be closer to his family,” says Tiffany. Chris grew up in Iberia Parish and attended New Iberia Senior High School. Tiffany is from New Orleans. They met when Chris worked there as a contractor for the U.S. Government.
It is a wonder they did not meet at Camp Coyote in Kuwait as they both were at the same military base at the same time—Tiffany with the Army, Chris with the Marines. “I never saw a whole lot of Army or Air Force when I was over there because they have a whole section to themselves,” says Chris. The Marines don’t let you play with any of the other branches of the military.”
Tiffany confirms that military divide. “We could have walked past each other a thousand times and never knew it.” The separation of the branches is a tradition in the armed forces and the couple laughs about it. “Marines tend to take stuff from the Army without asking and that may have something to do with it,” smiles Chris. Tiffany agrees. “We don’t like them and we are competitive. That has transcended this entire relationship too.”
Why Become A Soldier?
The Grevembergs have very different stories about joining the military. For Tiffany, out of school and working as an emergency medical technician and a firefighter, 9/11 was the deciding factor. “When 9/11 happened I had a lot of friends that were affected in New York. I didn’t know anyone personally that died, however I had friends of friends that died.
Literally, that day I went and joined the Army. I didn’t tell anyone until the day I had to leave. I held a party and everyone thought I was getting engaged or something like that. I told everyone my news and my daddy, he couldn’t believe it, and he said, ‘Are you nuts? We are at war!’ I said that is exactly why I want to go.”
She had always wanted to join the Armed Services and had even tried the Air Force at 18 but was told she was too short to be a pilot. “For whatever reason I had never found the right time so this was my time.”
Chris was a senior in high school without too many plans past graduation in 1996. “I didn’t do well in high school. I didn’t have a future in college. I saw myself not really having a structure.”
What he did have was a high regard for his grandfather who had been a Marine, the late Eugene “Red” Bradley. Bradley had passed away when Chris was in the 5th-grade. “He died at 65 and even all the way up to that time he was regarded as a Marine that fought in WWII.” Chris didn’t have a preference toward any branch of the service. “I figured there are five branches of service to choose from and the Marines are supposed to be the hardest, so I might as well go ahead and join them. If I don’t make it I have four more branches to choose from.”
All these years later Chris recalls what made him choose his path in life. “I do remember the single moment in time that I decided to join the Marines. We had just finished watching the Tom Cruise movie, “A Few Good Men.” Seeing the Marine Corps marching in the beginning and thinking ‘that has just got to be the most awesome thing in the world to do.’ What better could I do? What could college provide me with that the Marines could not? So I joined up.”
He startled the Marine Corps recruiter by his eagerness to begin learning what it takes to be a Marine. “He was shocked because nobody in New Iberia wants to go and join the Marine Corps. He was waiting for the punch line or to see who was waiting in the background or something. I signed up that week and I left to go to boot camp in San Diego.”
For Chris, being in service to his country was motivational and what he says was “the best thing that could have ever happened to me.” He enlisted as an open contract soldier, which means he didn’t have a job promised other than one that would be technical, no cook or driver positions. “I had tested well in certain things. They eventually trained me for a job doing measurements, which I still do today. I am a metrologist. I work with calibrations and measurements, test equipment, within the oilfield and aviation industries and I am the quality manager for Cal-Tec, Inc., in Broussard.”
Chris found the Marines to be a career path. When he was discharged he got accepted to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He started the aerospace engineering program which he was unable to finish because he was deployed as a Marine Corps Reservist following Katrina. And the rest is history, as they say.
Tiffany loved being in the Army and would be serving today if she hadn’t been almost hit by a rocket on a base in the mountainous region of Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. “I didn’t join for a career path, I joined for revenge,” she grins. Tiffany seems the least Sergeant-type name possible and while in the Army, she went by her last name, Lilliman, often shortened to Lilli. Today friends still call her Lilli.
Tiffany says talking about the explosion and the aftermath isn’t hard for her. She is lucky to be alive. When the blast occurred the soldiers were behind a wall but the concussion from the blast blew out the hearing in both her ears and gave her a traumatic brain injury. They treated her onsite, in Germany for one year, and then returned her to New Orleans. The blast re-injured a hip injury further including a fractured vertebra and hip/femur fracture. She didn’t get hit with shrapnel but her team gave her a piece of the rocket found in the area. “If we hadn’t been behind the wall we would have been hit with shrapnel. It saved us.”
The Army called Tiffany’s father to let him know she had been hit, and the first thing he wanted to do was fly to his daughter. They told him, “you can’t come to Afghanistan.” That was the hardest thing for him,” says Tiffany.
She has had 14 surgeries and a pair of hearing aids that help her to hear. She sends her former Staff Sergeant flowers and lifesavers on the anniversary of the blast. “I still have some issues, including PTSD with trouble sleeping and anxiety over bad weather. I know that nothing is wrong but I can’t calm myself down, which makes me mad at myself. Now that I have a baby, I really need to get on top of this.”
For her treatment, she receives care almost exclusively from the Veterans Administration offices in New Orleans. She delivered her daughter there and all of her health care is covered 100 percent. She has been seen by a neurologist, a physical therapist, an ear-nose-and throat doctor, a brain-injury specialist and a counselor. She has had insomnia, severe migraines and vertigo.
For his service, Chris broke his back in a training exercise and is 10 percent disabled yet does not feel he needs to seek VA medical care as he is employed. He is 36 now and feels he made the right decision to leave the Marine Corps seven years ago. “I am still working doing the same thing the Marine Corps trained me to do, so it has carried me through this whole time. I have taken this field I learned in the Marines and built on it, took as many classes in the Marines that I could,” said Chris.
Even though Chris’ Grandfather Bradley died when he was in the 5th-grade, that Marine was a big influence in this Marine’s life and yet inspires him to this day. A special ring represents a bittersweet case of “military serendipity” for Chris. In 1942, his Grandfather Bradley purchased a graduation ring commemorating successful completion of boot camp at Camp Pendleton, CA. Bradley wore the ring while fighting on Bougainville Island in Papua, New Guinea, in Guam and on the island of Iwo Jima. The ring was later presented to Chris on his graduation from Camp Pendleton – and he wore it while fighting in Iraq and Kuwait.
Chris wears his grandfather’s graduation ring every day and has for the past 15 years. “My grandfather was the biggest influence in my life. And there is nothing better than that uniform.”