Thank God for Instagram that led two introverted and only sometimes extroverted people together. At the time I was working as an Assistant Women’s Buyer at luxury boutique in Grand Rapids. Tyler, a shoe designer, creative, and entrepreneur, was visiting the boutique one Saturday morning at the beginning of September, 2014. We were peripherally checking each other out. I remember passing him to walk down a flight of stairs and it was this chemical draw as we neared each other. Going down the stairs, with my back to him, I could feel his presence; I knew he could feel mine. Later that day, he followed me on Instagram. A few weeks later, he sent me a photo on Instagram messenger. It was a multiple-choice question written and drawn out saying, “If I wanted to get to know you better, would you prefer it to be over…”

On the bottom there were sketches of a pitcher of beer, cup of coffee, a milkshake, a glass of wine, and a little message that said, “now is not a good time for me!” To this day, I give him a hard time that there wasn’t a plain “no- not interested” response. So presumptuous, I joke. Within a few minutes I responded with the wine glass emoji. In retrospect, we are such millennials. We may have technically met in person, however, Instagram and emoji’s played a big role. Within a few days, we went on our first date.

When deciding what to order, he asked me to pick his wine for him. When the two glasses of red wine came, we ended up sharing them. Now looking back, it was one of the first indicators of what would be a crazy, fun, and loving partnership.

Tyler and I are two very different people: we come from two very different families, interact with others differently, think differently, have different spiritual beliefs, and he doesn’t like mustard (ugh). Our differences have made our relationship difficult at times. But through all of the bickering, our one break up, and difficulties, we focus on the love for each other and others. Tyler was the first person to tell me that I love “hard,” that I love with all of my emotions, being, and heart. If I love “hard,” then he loves “soft,” not in a weak or delicate way, but in a way that is thoughtful, quiet, simple, and unwavering. We both care deeply about each other, our families, our friends, and the people, animals, and world around us. Together, we try to help each other push through all of the distractions, noise, and bullshit in order to try to focus on what’s important and real. For us, people are the realest: their lives, experiences, emotions, thoughts, and simply the desire to be seen and heard.

Although I grew up with a father that served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and with a grandfather who served in the Navy during WWII, I grew up very distant from the military world. Whether by choice, confidentiality, the sentiment of the Vietnam War in history, or simply because no one around him would fully understand, my father did not speak of his experiences while serving. Every once in a while, he would mention where he traveled to, that he would photograph the places he went and would sometimes send the images to National Geographic (so cool, I know), but I never fully understood what it was like for him during his years of service. It wasn’t until the combination of my involvement with [HAS HEART] and, unfortunately, his cardiovascular disease due to exposure of agent orange that I began talking more with him about his experiences in the Navy. While under heavy medications after a quadruple bypass heart surgery, he experienced a vivid dream in which he was on a plane that failed to take-off from an aircraft career and landed in the ocean, causing him to feel the sensation of drowning. Almost 50 years later, after living in different countries, getting married, having kids, and owning his own business, while lying unconscious in a hospital, his memories of service still had an effect on him.

In working with [HAS HEART], I began to have a better understanding of the way in which the military world is structured, the diversity of occupations within the armed services, its role throughout American history, and so much more. It seemed as though the more I learned, the more I had yet to learn. It truly is an entirely different world from the civilian life so many of us are accustomed to. My better-understanding made it possible for me to ask my father more questions about his time in the Navy. While I’ve always been close to him, I am having conversations with my dad that I’m not sure would have come up if I hadn’t motivated myself to learn more of the military.

When Tyler approached me about the 50 States: Veterans + Artists United tour, I was a little hesitant. The thought of leaving my family for two years while living in a 200 square-foot box obviously was intimidating. Mostly, I was worried about what others would think when I left home to live and work on the road, to dedicate myself to my husband’s cause and organization that he co-founded. “Am I being a bad feminist?” I would ask myself.

Photo by: Leigh Ann Cobb

I wondered how I fit into [HAS HEART] and its mission as someone who isn’t in the military or a designer. I had recently quit my retail buying position with the intention to return to school to pursue a master’s. My job wasn’t rewarding to me anymore and college was a time in my life where I learned a lot and I was good at being a student. It made sense to me to return. The only issue was that I didn’t know what I wanted to get my master’s in. Big red flag; queue the quarter-life crisis.

Without a routine or purpose, my anxiety and depression flourished and overpowered my life. With the help and support of my family, I began seeing an amazing therapist who listened and made me feel human again. Through my personal transformation, I formed an interest in mediation and therapy. I loved the combination of research, rational thought processes, listening, and connecting. When I looked into different paths to become a therapist or social worker, I was discouraged by options to take; it didn’t feel right for me.

Eventually I flew to Seattle and Portland with Tyler to conduct the pilot projects of the 50 States tour in January of 2017. There, for the first time, I experienced the creative collaboration process the Veteran and designer go through. I met two amazing Veterans: Monique Brown and Judith Burger, who opened their hearts to us. The team of creatives, designers, videographers, and photographers were all so inspiring in the way they were so passionate about their craft and it was so cool to see them eager to use their talents to tell someone’s personal story. Although it had required a lot of working planning, it actually felt very natural in the way it came together.

Portland, OR Photos by: Amit Zinman 

Seattle, WA Photos by: Sam Veatch

When we returned home from that trip, I thought to myself, “to hell with what others think about me,” and fully committed myself not only to this tour, but also to Tyler. We decided to plan a small, intimate wedding ceremony and celebration with 30 of our close friends and family just before the tour began.

Wedding Photos by: Arielle Teft Photography

When our families would inquire about the tour-planning with a hint of doubt (naturally, we don’t blame them), we’d respond with confidence. We were going to do this.

And we are. At first it felt like a long vacation while also living and working on the road. Then it started to become our new normal. Meeting Veterans and creatives in each state has been bittersweet as, once we spend time and get to know these amazing people, we leave for the next state. Thankfully, as the internet was there for us while we began dating, it’s there for us to stay in touch with the [HAS HEART] family we are a part of.

Portsmouth, NH Photos by: Raya Al-Hashmi

We get to see some absolutely breathtaking sights, explore beautiful parks, experience different cultures, and visit amazing museums. Then other times, we get to see our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, the division in cities, and many living in poverty.

Whatever they may be, these realities are what drive us and inspires us, each and every day on the road. We look forward to continuing to share this journey with you.

Visit our Tour Schedule to see when we’ll be in a city near you.