From the moment a wedding ends, a new journey begins. But as a 15-year-old bride, Samantha Knowles is still in a kind of limbo.
The Kansas teen can’t get a full-time job.
She can’t drive on her own.
She’s not old enough yet to graduate from high school.
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And then there was that movie night, when she and her 17-year-old husband, Dylan, figured that because they were a newly married couple, they were also adults. They tried to go to a 9 p.m. showing of R-rated “Annabelle” at The Legends.
Sorry, the ticket taker said, you’re teens.
“I was like, ‘We’re legally married,’” Dylan said, head shaved, wearing combat boots, radiating his typical measured calm. “She was like, ‘I’m not going to let you in.’ I thought it was a bunch of bull.”
“The problem wasn’t the horror movie we were trying to see,” recalled Sammy, about whom everything is bright and unbounded: her personality, her ample figure, the way she changes her bob hairstyle from black to blond to electric blue. “It was the fact that we couldn’t actually be at the shopping center past 9 because they don’t allow teenagers.”
But are they happy?
“Oh, yeah,” Sammy chimed, “we’re definitely happy.”
They got engaged with toy “Star Wars” rings before swapping them out for bands when they drove in last summer from Leavenworth, Kan., to marry in Missouri’s Platte County.
“I’m married to my best friend,” Dylan said.
In their home state of Kansas, Dylan and Sammy would have needed a judge’s OK to marry. But in Missouri — the state with the most lenient law in the nation allowing 15-year-olds to wed — they each needed only a parent’s signature.
In February, Dylan, with his military look, left for eight weeks of Navy basic training and later technical school. When that is over, they hope that their lives will blossom into something great and lasting.
But on this recent day, they did what teenagers do. They hung out, huddled upstairs in the spare bedroom of his mom’s Leavenworth duplex for privacy and to escape some family tension.
Sammy, her hair streaked blond and pink, curled up under a blanket spread across their thin mattress on the floor, watching YouTube videos on her phone. Dylan lay next to her playing a video game, their two cats roaming the room.
The couple couldn’t afford to live on their own yet. Dylan worked nights in Walmart’s warehouse for $10 an hour.
Sammy was still too young for a full-time job. Home-schooled, she felt fully ready for her GED exam.
“But I can’t take it until I’m 16,” she said.
Her simple, lace wedding dress was the only item hanging in her closet, crooked on a plastic hanger.
Downstairs, Dylan’s grandmother, Patricia Eismann, had just expressed how foolish she thought Dylan and Sammy had been to marry, convinced that his enlistment in the Navy wouldn’t help.
“Nope, nope, nope, nope,” Eismann said. She dragged on a cigarette. “He’s going off. He’s going to experience different places, different things: people, women. … I just feel like they got a long road ahead of them.”
Barely 50 percent of teen marriages last a decade, data show. Many begin and end in poverty.
But of all the goals Dylan and Sammy share, one is to prove that their child marriage will last — even though, curiously enough, it wasn’t even their idea to marry this soon.
It was her parents’.
Sammy, of course, knows what people assume.
“‘Are you pregnant?’ That was pretty much everybody’s reaction,” Sammy said a few days earlier, “which is a valid reaction.”
She and Dylan sat on a couch in his dad’s apartment, where they had lived for several months before moving to his mom’s.
But Sammy wasn’t pregnant. Nor, she insisted, had they been intimate in that way until marriage. “No,” Sammy said.
In Jefferson City, lawmakers argued passionately in February over whether the state should require a judge’s OK for 15- and 16-year-olds to wed. Before House Bill 1630 was approved and sent to the Senate on 95 to 50 vote, opponents argued that the measure was an assault on parents’ rights, while supporters claimed it would prevent children from making massive mistakes.
But Sammy’s parents, Joy and Doug Bradford, who does billing for the U.S. Veterans Administration, thought their daughter was ready.
“They are Christian,” Sammy said, “very morally good people.”
By Joy Bradford’s telling, she and Doug were older parents who have long regretted waiting so long to start a family. She was 30 when she had Catherine, now 19. Sammy came eight years later, at age 4, out of foster care after suffering severe neglect and abuse. The couple adopted her.
Sammy’s parents had been watching her relationship with Dylan develop from friendship. Both the kids, they thought, were mature beyond their years. Dylan was going into the Navy and had already told the Bradfords that he wanted to marry their daughter when she turned 17.
Once it became clear that Sammy was choosing to become more sexually intimate — “They ‘anticipated’ the wedding,” Joy Bradford said — the Bradfords felt strongly that such intimacy was meant for marriage.
“My husband, it was actually his idea,” she said. “He said, ‘Maybe we should just run and get married now.’”
Four weeks later, last July, Dylan and Sammy did.
“Honestly,” Joy Bradford said, “when people say, ‘How could you let your daughter get married so young? That’s just crazy. She’ll be 18 and be like divorced already.’ I’m like, ‘You know Samantha. She’s very mature for her age. … He’s a stand-up guy. He’s very mature for his age. And they have found each other in a world that is full of a lot of people who don’t give a crap about other people. …’
“What’s the point of making her wait?”
Joy Bradford’s own sister was married at 16 to a military husband. They’re still going strong, she reasoned. But she also thinks parents should be trusted to know what’s best for their kids.
“I mean, you’re ignoring thousands of years that were different,” she said. “It used to be that girls were wives and mothers at 13, 14, 15, 16. The only reason that seems so young now is that we don’t expect our kids to grow up.”
Sammy and Dylan were certainly far from grown up when they met at 13 and 15.
Neither had a clue they’d be wed two years later.
“Excuse my language, but I thought he was a prick,” Sammy recalled.
They met at a Leavenworth restaurant, the now-closed Bassa Prua, where Dylan worked. Sammy arrived as an informal intern, learning chef’s skills as part of her home schooling.
Then one day, sent to pick up basil from the farmers market, they started to chat.
“You said to me, ‘I like my Starbucks like I like my women: short, thick and white,” Sammy recalled.
“White, thick and sweet,” Dylan gently corrected.
Sammy was hardly impressed. But then she got to know him, the middle child of three. His dad, a phlebotomist. His mom, a medical assistant. His parents would end up divorcing when Dylan was 16, hitting him hard.
“It was really good when we were younger,” Dylan said. “But as we got older, things got rougher.”
Dylan’s mom — upset at first by his young marriage, but now supportive — did not return requests for an interview.
James Knowles said his son had always been preternaturally responsible.
“From the time Dylan was 12 or 13, I’ve been telling him, ‘Dude, be a child,’” he said.
At Dylan’s restaurant job, the money wasn’t just for fun. It was necessary.
“By the time I was a freshman,” Dylan said, “I was already paying for all my own clothes, paying for all my school fees and getting by.”
Then Sammy walked into the restaurant.
A bond formed quickly by phone, over Facebook and playing video games remotely. They never once saw each other outside of work.
“I definitely had a crush on her, but I was anxious,” Dylan said.
“I wasn’t allowed to date in the slightest,” Sammy said.
Both Dylan’s father and boss cautioned him.
“She was like, ‘If you date her, and her parents get mad, and they ask her to stop working here, you’re fired,’” Dylan recalled.
Sammy’s parents warned her.
“They knew we were friends, but they didn’t approve at all,” Sammy said. “They found out something was going on between the two of us and they made me quit working there. They took away my phone and laptop and internet access for six months.”
So Dylan moved on. He would soon pour himself into a new job at a Dillons supermarket.
“I never really had a plan for the future,” Dylan said, “until I got into high school and got into ROTC.”
At 4 a.m., before school, before work, he would wake and make his way to the rifle range.
“I didn’t have that much elsewhere in life,” he said. “But the fact that I could show up there every day and I was Sgt. Knowles. I could be here, do something, and feel a sense of accomplishment.”
Later, his drive compelled him to graduate at the end of his junior year, taking classes online.
“Military life,” Dylan said, “is really the only thing I can imagine at this point.”
That, and being married to Sammy.
After months apart, Sammy, 14 by then, saw Dylan again at the supermarket. They called. They texted.
Then in February of last year, they shared a memorable evening. Sammy’s parents were gone for a couple of days, leaving her with her sister and grandfather at home.
She called Dylan late. He came over. They lay curled in a blanket looking up at the stars and talking past 2 a.m.
“It was really the first time I disobeyed my parents,” Sammy said. “I was like hyperventilating through the first hour.”
She persuaded her parents to allow her to date Dylan while chaperoned.
They married five months later.
‘Divorce is not an option’
Sammy’s mom signed off on her daughter’s license. Because Dylan, at 17, was also a minor, he needed a parent’s signature, too.
“I had to think about it for a month,” James Knowles said.
He had married young, too, when he was 19. Dylan’s mom was 17.
“Everyone thought that we were making a huge mistake,” Dylan said, “that we would just get divorced in a year, that we’d just get tired of it.”
Such concerns are warranted.
“One thing that is absolutely factually true is that marrying young is about the biggest single risk factor for divorce that there is,” said Scott Stanley, a research psychologist and co-director of the University of Denver’s Center for Marital and Family Studies.
Teens have yet to develop into their final selves, he said.
“There is still a lot of change going on in personality, in preferences, in direction in life, career,” he said. “One theory is that who you marry when you marry at 18 or 17, that person may not have chosen the same person seven years later or five years later.”
Young marriages also tend to be quick marriages, he said. Couples don’t know each other well. With teenagers, Stanley said, comes “the volatility of handling emotions, handling conflict, handling disagreement. Things get emotional and they fly apart.”
But, Stanley added, a factor could play well in Sammy and Dylan’s favor: the military.
Combat stress and long deployments can destroy marriages. But for young couples, the military also offers financial security — $1,600 per month to start for Dylan — along with housing, child care, medical care.
The military, Stanley said, tends to attract people “committed to commitment, in terms of discipline in life.”
Marriage is exactly that — a commitment.
Dylan’s plan is to train to become a master-at-arms, part of the Navy’s military police. His older brother is already in the Air National Guard. His younger sister, still in high school, is considering going into the U.S. Air Force. Sammy’s grandfather was a retired Air Force major.
“I think they can have a bright and happy future,” James Knowles said, “as long as they get themselves established in the adult world before they have kids.”
Sammy and Dylan feel certain.
“We’re going to be together through the bad, through the good, through everything, and divorce is not an option,” Sammy said.
“We were at that altar. We said those vows. We said through sickness, health, everybody knows it. As soon as things get hard, if you’re just immediately going to turn back on that and decide, ‘No, never mind,’ what’s the point of getting married?”
“I guess what marriage is,” he said, “is deciding right here, right now, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years down the road, that this is the person you want to be with. A lot of people are scared of commitment. A lot of people don’t like the suburban life, the car, the kids, the mortgage and all that.
“But being married means you’re not scared of that anymore. This is the life you want. No matter what happens next, you’re with that person through it all.”
Almost eight months into their marriage, Sammy and Dylan have hardly yet begun.
With Dylan now north of Chicago at boot camp, Sammy moved into her parents’ finished basement in Lansing, where she’ll stay for the months he’s away.
“She’ll still be part of our home,” Sammy’s mother said. “I’ll tell you, the hardest thing about her getting married is learning how to parent her differently. Because, you know, she is a married woman.”
Sammy has tasks to complete.
Get a job.
Get her permanent license.
Pass her GED exam.
In May, she turns 16.