The first time Jennifer Nicole Walters spoke to John Clark Palicka was over the phone, in preparation for a training mission scheduled for the next day. Both were US Air Force pilots stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, California.
The phone call, which took place in April 2016, was brief and perfunctory. And yet, Ms. Walters said that she altered Mr. Palicka’s name, addressing him as “John” instead of “Clark”, the name by which he is known, and then mispronounced his last name. .
“It was like ‘oops, this is off to a good start,’” said Ms Walters, now 34.
Despite the initial awkwardness, the two developed a relationship, although they only spent time together intermittently, always as part of larger friend groups. In 2018, Ms. Walters, who had recently ended a long-term relationship, began to see Mr. Palicka in a new light.
That spring, Mr. Palicka, Mrs. Walters, and some of their friends participated in the bay to breakers race in San Francisco. Later that day, the couple bought a bottle of champagne (Ms. Walters is an unabashed fan of bubbly drinks) and drank it on the grass at Crissy Field, just east of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“It was like one of those stunning moments where you look at the person and the background and realize this is the new trajectory of my life,” Ms. Walters said.
As their courtship continued, Ms. Walters felt increasing uncertainty about their relationship, which they said is a hallmark of active military service. Their relationship was further strained when Ms Walters was sent to the Al Dhafra airbase in the United Arab Emirates in the fall of 2018.
“Our relationship really hadn’t had time to get to that stable point where it can be nurtured from afar,” Ms Walters said. The couple broke contact.
But Mr. Palicka, 38, familiar with the stresses and challenges of military life, was determined to make things work.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about her,” he said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about what might be in there.”
A couple of months after her deployment, Ms. Walters received a large box with no postage. It was from Mr. Palicka; she had placed him aboard one of the planes sent periodically to Al Dhafra airbase to replenish crews or supplies. Inside the care package were some of Ms. Walters’ favorite things, from Halloween candy to Korean face masks.
There was also a letter in which Mr. Palicka professed his hope that they could try again when Mrs. Walters returned. She said that she was surprised by her kindness and attention.
“This guy listens,” he said. “This guy is always going to tell me how he feels.”
They rekindled their relationship, but both confessed that a couple of difficult moments marked the following years. During that time, Mr. Palicka became a reservist and was hired as a first officer at United Airlines. He recently was selected to join the company’s pilot recruitment team.
Mr. Palicka graduated from the US Air Force Academy with a bachelor’s degree in meteorology. Ms. Walters has a BA in history, also from academia, as well as an MA and Ph.D. in public policy from the Frederick S. Pardee RAND Graduate School.
Ms. Walters applied for a job as a speechwriter for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She called it a “moon cast” opportunity, but she remembered Mr. Palicka’s unwavering encouragement, even if it meant they’d have to move across the country.
“I want to be with you,” Mr. Palicka told him. “I will follow you.”
Ms. Walters landed the job, and the couple moved from Davis, California, to Washington, DC, in late 2020.
In April 2022, the couple visited the Lincoln Memorial, a place they had often talked about visiting. Mr. Palicka had packed food, champagne… and a ring. They claimed a spot on the lawn behind the monument, overlooking the Potomac River, and watched the planes come and go from Reagan National Airport. It was there that he proposed to Mrs. Walters.
(Click here to read this week’s featured couples.)
The couple married on March 10 at District Winery in Washington’s Navy Yard. (The date is a four-digit palindrome of her birthday: his is January 3 and hers is January 30.)
Dr. Gregg Mayer, a friend of the couple who was ordained by Universal Life Church a week earlier, officiated. There were 115 guests in attendance, including two dozen pilots, including Mrs. Walters’ father and brother.
The reception featured revelry, heartfelt speeches and, of course, drops of champagne, in the form of two champagne towers.
The celebration doubled as a farewell party to their lives in Washington. The couple will move to Aix-en-Provence, France, in May, where Ms. Walters will begin a two-year graduate program in global defense and international security at Sciences Po Aix.
After that, the sky is the limit.