Brianna Keilar is a familiar face as CNN’s senior Washington correspondent, but most people don’t know that she is also an Army spouse. Keilar married Lt. Col. Fernando Lujan at the end of 2016. They met four years prior when Lujan was working on the National Security Council at the White House. Now Keilar is going through her first deployment as a military spouse. We asked her about her life as a military spouse, how it impacts her job, and what the holidays were like with her husband deployed.
MSM: You are a relatively new military spouse…tell us about your wedding!
BK: We got married in Las Vegas and were lucky to be surrounded by close family and friends, some who came from as far away as Somalia and Afghanistan. I really enjoyed the details that went into honoring Fernando’s military service. Fernando looked dashing in his dress uniform and we found a military cake topper online so that the groom atop the cake was wearing an accurate depiction of his uniform. (Check out Brianna’s cake on our cover!) Fernando’s groomsmen were buddies from high school and West Point. It was the day before New Year’s Eve so most guests stuck around for an extra day to ring in 2017 with us.
MSM: What words of advice, if any, have you received from other military spouses about marrying an Army officer?
BK: Fernando is currently on his sixth combat deployment but it’s the first one that I have gone through. In advance of his deployment the piece of advice I received most often from other military spouses was to ask for help while he was away. After hearing it repeatedly from different people, I decided there was a good reason it was being passed on, so I have taken it to heart. “I’m pregnant so chores that require balancing on a ladder are no longer doable.” I have enlisted my friend’s husband to come over and change air filters and hard-to-reach light bulbs or lift things I cannot. If one of my friend’s is grocery shopping I will tack on a request. At first I was going to my doctor appointments and ultrasounds alone but for my next one I am asking one of my girlfriends to go with me. I’m so grateful for the advice I’ve received from seasoned military spouses and I have so much respect for them, both men and women, dealing with various issues on their own.
MSM: What helps you deal with the separation, uncertainties and anxiety that comes with having a spouse who is deployed?
BK: I lean on friends and family. I deal with the uncertainties and anxiety by talking a lot to my sister and friends. I burn up the phone lines way more when Fernando is gone. I have a really tight group of girlfriends and we are at one another’s houses cooking and hanging out. I know I’m blessed to have a close network I can lean on since many military wives and husbands move so often that they are creating a life and raising a family away from their support systems.
MSM: Do you find it a challenge to cover news that hits so close to home?
BK: It is very hard to cover the news while Fernando is gone. I won’t even pretend otherwise. During the controversy over President Trump’s call to a Gold Star widow I just happened to be anchoring when White House Chief of Staff John Kelly unexpectedly took over the White House briefing and talked about what happens when a service member is killed. I was on set with a panel of guests preparing to discuss his comments and I couldn’t stop crying. I was able to compose myself by the time he finished and do my job but I almost wasn’t. When I wrote about this in an opinion piece on cnn.com I was so touched by the response that I got from military spouses, Gold Star families and also people who had no connection to the military. There are a lot of people across the country who may not have ties to the military but want to understand what it is we are going through.
MSM: How does being in a military family impact your perspective while doing your job?
BK: My career is a big part of my life, but my family is paramount. As a military spouse I view the news through a very different prism than I did before I was with Fernando. Now when I cover North Korea, the reality of what a war with an unpredictable nuclear power could mean to my family and our friends is the first thing that comes to my mind. This makes my job a lot more emotionally taxing but I also think it makes me better at covering the news. It takes me outside of the bubble as I cover foreign policy.
MSM: How do you stay connected with Fernando during his absences?
BK: Technology is hugely helpful for weathering the separation. FaceTime and Skype allow us to stay in touch in real time. I take care of my stepson, Teddy, in Fernando’s absence and Fernando can video call us on Skype and just hang out with us while Teddy draws, plays or does show and tell, allowing us to replicate how it is when his father is home. When Teddy and I are out walking around Washington, D.C., running errands or walking the dog, Fernando can tune in on FaceTime and go wherever we go. It helps maintain his regular presence in our lives. We use SnapChat as well so that we can exchange silly videos but I’m now mostly using the Marco Polo app for that. The videos automatically save so now we have months of awesome videos that we both can go back and watch while we are apart. Teddy loves watching them too.
MSM: Have you spent any holidays apart?
BK: We spent Thanksgiving and Christmas apart this year, as well as our first anniversary. I had a wonderful Thanksgiving because I was able to travel out to California with Teddy to see my sister, nephews and other family. Fernando was home for two weeks in early December and we pulled out all the stops for an early Christmas celebration, decorating a big tree and having friends and family over to join us. It was wonderful. The news business has often required me to celebrate holidays not on the actual day so I thought I was prepared to get through Christmas but I wasn’t! The days around the actual holiday of Christmas were very difficult because I stayed in Washington on my own and most of my “friend family” left town. I won’t lie, there were some tears! I joined some friends for Christmas Eve and Christmas festivities and had a good time but there’s no substitute for having my husband around. I worked on Christmas and New Year’s and it was actually a godsend to be busy. I’ve worked at CNN for 12 years so a lot of my colleagues are like family and it felt good to be with them and enjoy a meal.
MSM: You face some unique challenges as a military couple! How do you keep the lines of communication open when you are both such busy people?
BK: We make time to go on dates and sit down and talk but we also don’t pretend to have all the answers. Sometimes you need a little help! Fernando and I read this 2014 article in The Atlantic called “Masters of Love,” which detailed decades of research by a psychologist named John Gottman. He and his wife, Julie, have dedicated their life’s work to studying what makes relationships work. It’s fascinating. And the answer, in short, is kindness. They formed the Gottman Institute and publish a wealth of helpful articles and even put together a weekend workshop for couples in DVD and workbook form that can help you communicate, reconnect and avoid the pitfall of taking each other for granted, which is easy to do when life is so busy. Yes, it’s kind of like homework, but it works and it’s fun to do together. We have given it to friends as a wedding gift.
MSM: What do you feel is a misconception the general public has about military families and service members?
BK: I think the general public theoretically knows that military families and service members make sacrifices but I don’t think they fully comprehend what that entails. I know that I didn’t before I was a military spouse and I also realize that being a new military spouse and going through this one deployment is much different than having gone through several of them.