By Zirconia Alleyne
Crystal Burgeson was fed up with dating in 2010. She had just left an abusive relationship behind in Illinois and moved in with her cousin who was stationed at Fort Campbell.
She had a son, Jeremy Cardwell Jr., and a baby girl, Isabella, who needed her full attention. Men were the last thing on her mind.
However, her overzealous cousin had another idea — to find Crystal a new man.
“Her way of trying to get me over my situation was (having) me go on a date here and a date there,” Crystal said.
After they exhausted every online dating site and nothing clicked, Crystal just wanted to be alone.
Going against Crystal’s plea for singledom, her cousin set up one last date via Craigslist. She pretended to be Crystal and chatted with a young Fort Campbell soldier named Michael Burgeson for two weeks before inviting him over to meet Crystal.
“One night, we were setting up for dinner and she was like, ‘You need to get another plate.’” The guy from Craigslist was coming over, but Crystal wasn’t enthused.
She reluctantly set another plate, but that didn’t mean she had to cooperate or be friendly.
Crystal didn’t comb her hair or put on makeup and stayed in her pajamas. She also didn’t want the Craigslist guy meeting her children.
“I wanted him to come and be like ‘Ugh,’ and then want to leave,” she laughed. “And then he came, and I was like, ‘He takes really bad pictures because he’s cute.’”
Crystal dipped into her room, got dressed and decided to get to know the “lonely cowboy” from Craigslist.
After their first “date,” the couple began hanging out more and more. Michael regularly stopped by after work and kept coming over for dinner. Crystal joked that he got hooked on the food.
“I lived in the barracks and I had peanut butter and beer in my fridge,” Michael laughed.
Another small factor hooked him as well – 6-month-old Bella. Michael said it was an instant
“I’m simple minded — I did four years of infantry — so me and kids get along very well,” he said, “and she was just beautiful. She was my little Short Round.”
Crystal was shocked that Michael clicked with her children.
“I think the first moment I fell in love with him was when he met her,” she smiled. “He turned into the diaper changer, 3 a.m. bottle-maker, and she completely had him wrapped around her finger.”
Michael, who only had nieces and nephews, said he was in tears the first time she called him Daddy. Crystal admits she was a little jealous that she didn’t say Mama first.
Six months into their relationship, Michael was set to deploy again with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and Crystal’s cousin was moving.
The couple knew they didn’t want to be separated so he proposed via Facebook by changing his status to engaged.
The wedding took place at the Christian County Courthouse the day he returned from deployment, Feb. 4, 2011.
In 2013, Michael started talking about adopting Bella. However, he had one concern — he didn’t want Jeremy Jr., Crystal’s son from another relationship, to feel left out for having a different last name.
Jeremy Jr.’s father, Jeremy Cardwell Sr., was very active in his life and there was no way they were going to take that away from him, he said. Crystal reassured Michael that it was a different situation.
“Jr. knows his dad. Bella knows you as her dad,” she told her husband. “After we got Jr.’s blessing, that’s when it made it OK for him.”
Nearly two and a half deployments later, Bella became a Burgeson. Michael was deployed during adoption day, but Bella carried his picture so he could be there. Michael’s mom and sister as well as Jeremy Jr. came to the hearing to show support.
A photo of Bella looking at Michael’s picture ran on the summer cover of Fort Campbell Families. The dress she wore came from Crystal’s mom who lives in California.
“We call it the adoption day dress now,” she said.
Crystal said she doesn’t hide information from Bella about her biological father, who lives in Illinois. His parents are still a big part of Bella’s life and visit regularly.
Jeremy Jr. spends summers in Nebraska with his dad, who has developed a friendship with Michael. They consider each other family as well.
“He’s a great guy,” Michael said. “He’ll call our house to talk to me about books and video games.”
Crystal said having a smooth, blended family takes time.
“You can’t force it,” she said. “It’s not something you’re going to make happen. You have to let it happen.”
Michael said people think he’s crazy for being so committed to children that aren’t biologically his, and although they can’t bear children together, he’s happy with their family dynamic.
“When I met Jr. and Bella, I instantly fell in love with them,” he said. “Jr. may not be my biological son, but he’s my son and I love him unconditionally … Bella was already mine from the beginning anyway, and I’d take a bullet for both of them.”
3 reasons why the Burgesons love Fort Campbell:
1. Living in a cul-de-sac and having a backyard for the kids to play
2. Being an hour and a half away from Michael’s family in Murfreesboro
3. It’s the place they met