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Their final leave: Local couple returns from life with Navy

David and Michelle Bellefeuille were friends and co-workers growing up in the Detroit Lakes-Frazee area.

She was 15, he was 16.

"We both worked at the old Evan's Grocery Store in DL," said David Bellefeuille, as his wife added, "Yeah, I was a cashier and he was a bag boy," she laughed with an expression that suggested it was a million years ago.

It was actually more like 23 years ago.

But after he graduated from high school, David's buddy suggested they join the Navy.

"So I did," he said, simple as that.

But during his first Christmas leave home, his friendship with Michelle took a romantic twist.

After a year of having Michelle as "his girl back home," David called his mother, Alice.

"He asked me how much money he had in his savings," said Alice Bellefeuille, "And I thought, what in the heck did he do?" she laughed. "But he said, 'I love that girl and want to ask her to marry me tonight, but I need to know if I have enough money.'"

However much or little it was, it was enough.

Michelle said yes, and in doing so, said yes to the oftentimes-hard life of a military spouse.

David was gone more often than he was home.

He was a sonar technician in the Navy, which meant he was stationed on submarines.

"Basically I listened for things in the ocean," said Bellefeuille, "Merchants, submarines, war ships, whales ... whatever made noise."

Bellefeuille is a pretty quiet and reserved guy, which works out well because he can't say much anyway -- particularly when it comes to his time in the sub.

"Most of what I did was classified," said Bellefeuille,

That meant when he left his wife and growing family, he couldn't tell them where he was going or what he was going to be doing.

"It became a way of life," said Michelle, "You don't think about it because if you do, you'll go crazy. I knew never to ask anything. He told me from the start, 'If I told you, I'd have to kill you'," she joked.

Back home on Little Floyd Lake, he was also missed.

"It was hard, but I couldn't have picked anybody better than Michelle," said Alice, tearing up as she looked at her daughter-in-law, "She was always there, and she always let us know what she could. The not knowing was the hard part."

The Navy took the Bellefeuilles to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Charleston, South Carolina and Groton, Connecticut.

In amongst their moves, David and Michelle had three children -- Jenae, Nick and Megan.

The "military brats" were in good company, attending school by a Navy base where other kids knew exactly what they were going through with an oftentimes-absent father.

Out of his 20 years in the military, Bellefeuille spent half of that time away at sea, stationed on fast-attack nuclear subs, including the U.S.S. Bluefish, the U.S.S. Springfield and the U.S.S. Alexandria.

He, too, missed his family, but was also seeing the world -- 21 countries in all.

"Probably one of the highlights was breaking through the ice up in the Artic Circle at the North Pole," said Bellefeuille.

The rest of the time, he spent on shore with his family in Connecticut.

Michelle says having to be Mom, Dad, mechanic and everything in-between made her so self-sufficient that when David did come home, it was always a big adjustment.

"We knew going into it that it'd be hard, though," she said, "And here we are, 20 years later!"

And by "here," she means together as a family, home in Minnesota.

David retired as a Chief Petty Officer from the Navy, essentially ending the family's "time" in the Navy.

"It's been 20 years, 8 months and 24 days," said Alice Bellefeuille, who sits happily around her son, daughter-in-law and grandkids.

But who's counting?

The family just arrived in Minnesota last week and is staying with Michelle's family in Rochert until they figure out where they want to live.

"I feels so good to have them home," said Alice, "It feels really good to be here," added Michelle, who said they've always called Minnesota home, no matter where they lived.

All three children say they're glad to know they have their father back on a full-time basis, and are ready to make Minnesota not just a place they visit every summer, but home.

"Now I can teach my dad how to fish," teased 16-year-old Nick, who says he, too, wants one day to be on the front lines with the Marines, Seals or Army.

"My great-grandparents, my grandparents and my dad were all in the military, and I want to be, too. I want to serve my country," said Nick, as his mother shook her head and interrupted, "Work for the post office!"

The family all laughs, as every once in a while one of them breaks down in tears from the roller coaster of emotions.

"We're going to miss our military family," said Michelle, as David adds, "I'll miss the comradery with the other sailors when we were out to sea."

But while they say the move back home will be an adjustment, it is a welcome one.

"It was time," said Michelle, who is reminded of the years that have passed as she prepares for her 20th class reunion in Frazee this weekend, "I've learned to appreciate family in a way I don't think you can do when you are 18 or 19. You really don't know what you've got until it's gone. But we're home now," she says with tears in her eyes.

Right now neither David or Michelle know what they want to do for jobs, "There's not much for sonar techs around here," laughed David, but they say they'll worry about that once they have a house and get their kids settled into school -- wherever that will be.

The Bellefeuilles say they will probably look somewhere slightly west of their roots so that they can be close to oldest daughter, Jenae, who starts classes at MSUM in the fall.

"We've always been a close family throughout the whole time away," said Michelle, "So now we want to stay that way."