The first time Jennifer Nicole Walters spoke with John Clark Palicka was over the phone, it was in preparation for a training mission scheduled for the following day. Both were U.S. Air Force pilots stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, Calif.
The phone call, which took place in April 2016, was brief and perfunctory. And yet, Ms. Walters said she mangled Mr. Palicka’s name, addressing him as “John” instead of “Clark,” the name he is known by, and then mispronouncing his surname.
“It was like ‘oops, this is off to a good start,’” Ms. Walters, now 34, said.
Despite the initial awkwardness, the two developed a rapport, though they spent only intermittent time together, 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, Ms. Walters and some of their friends participated in the Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco. Later that day, the pair bought a bottle of champagne — Ms. Walters is an unabashed enthusiast of the bubbly — and drank it on the lawn at Crissy Field, just east of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“It was kind of one of those flashbulb moments where you look at the person and the background and you realize this is the new trajectory of my life,” Ms. Walters said.
As their courtship continued, Ms. Walters felt a gnawing uncertainty about their relationship, which they said is a hallmark of active-duty military service. Their relationship was further strained when Ms. Walters was deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates in the fall of 2018.
“Our relationship really hadn’t had time to get into that stable point where you can nurture it from afar,” Ms. Walters said. The couple broke off 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 could be there.”
A couple of months into her deployment, Ms. Walters received a large box without any postage. It was from Mr. Palicka; he had placed it aboard one of the planes periodically dispatched to Al Dhafra Air Base to replenish crews or supplies. Inside the care package were some of Ms. Walters’s favorite things, from Halloween candy to Korean face masks.
There was also a letter in which Mr. Palicka professed his hope that they might give things another try when Ms. Walters returned. She said she was struck by his thoughtfulness and attentiveness.
“This guy listens,” she said. “This guy is always going to tell me how he feels.”
They rekindled their relationship, but both confessed that a couple of rough patches punctuated the next few years. During that time, Mr. Palicka became a reservist and was hired as a first officer at United Airlines. He was recently selected to join the company’s pilot hiring team.
Mr. Palicka graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy with a degree in meteorology. Ms. Walters has a degree in history, also from the academy, as well as a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in public policy from the Frederick S. Pardee RAND Graduate School.
Ms. Walters applied for a job as a speechwriter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She called it a “moonshot” opportunity, but recalled Mr. Palicka’s unflinching encouragement, even if it meant they would have to move across the country.
“I want to be with you,” Mr. Palicka told her. “I’ll follow you.”
Ms. Walters got the job and the couple moved from Davis, Calif., to Washington, D.C., in late 2020.
In April 2022, the couple visited the Lincoln Memorial, a spot they had often talked about visiting. Mr. Palicka had packed food, champagne … and a ring. They claimed a spot on the grass behind the memorial, overlooking the Potomac River, and watched planes overhead, coming and going from Reagan National Airport. It was there that he proposed to Ms. Walters.
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The couple wed March 10 at the District Winery in Washington’s Navy Yard. (The date is a four-digit palindrome of their birthdays: His is Jan. 3 and hers is Jan 30.)
Dr. Gregg Mayer, a friend of the couple who was ordained by Universal Life Church a week earlier, officiated. In attendance were 115 guests, among them two dozen pilots, including Ms. Walters’s father and brother.
The reception had revelry, heartfelt speeches — and of course, gobs of champagne, in the form of two champagne towers.
The celebration doubled as a farewell party to their lives in Washington. The couple are moving 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’s the limit.
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