By Joshua M. Patton
Iraq is not a place for lovers. This war’s purpose was to be the stepping-stone for a major change in the Middle East. It was not to last more than six months and while no one ever expected it to be easy, it was not supposed to last this long. Iraq is a country ravaged by violence – Iraqi against Iraqi, mujahedeen from radical Islamic sects fighting locals or the coalition forces, and our forces themselves -finding it difficult to differentiate between enemy and civilian. Just being there takes a toll on those of us who have never seen war before. The Army does its best to establish a support system for its troops. There are chaplains of every faith available and soldiers often lean on other soldiers. Yet there is no substitute for the voice of a loved on even across miles of ocean and desert.
It is a challenge for couples to work through the stresses of a relationship even when there isn’t war raging around them or a separation of thousands of miles. The true problem couples face in this situation is a lack of selflessness. The soldier faces an entire change of lifestyle with restrictions on everything he or she does from eating to recreational time. Violence can erupt around one so suddenly, it can be difficult to ever let one’s guard down. Yet, the person at home also has to deal with everyday life made worse by the absence of a partner. The problems tend to come when couples stop listening to each other and focus on oneself. The couples that “make it” are those who in spite of all their immediate concerns remain focused on the needs of their loved one, trusting the other to do the same.
My friend Hank* was married to the mother of his two sons, Karen during our deployment. She met him at a party at the college they both attended at one of the local frat houses. Karen found herself facing the unwanted advances of one of the frat brothers, literally backed into a corner. She was contemplating the self-defense moves her mother had taught her before she left for school (thumbs in the eyes or a knee in the groin?) when the very drunk boy was grabbed from behind and she found herself face to face with her rescuer, Hank.
“Mind if I take this guy’s place and ask you to dance?” He asked her with a wry smile.
“It was yours to begin with,” Karen replied softly.
In six months, they were living together in a small apartment in the Southside of Chicago. Karen continued at the University of Chicago, while Hank left school and began to work in the newly exploding mortgage market. After a few successful months, Hank surprised Karen with a cruise to the Bahamas. On the last night of the cruise, they stood on the deck watching the sunset into the Atlantic.
“Have you ever seen anything more beautiful,” she asked looking out at the horizon.
“Yes, you” said Hank. Karen turned to him to smile and saw him on one knee, arm extended, and a small box in his hand.
“What are you doing?” she asked breathlessly.
“Asking you to marry me,” he replied, the normal air of confidence in his voice absent, replaced with nervousness she had not heard from him before. They both wept tears of joy as the sun disappeared for the night.
As with all love stories, the actual business of living happily ever-after was more of a challenge than they had imagined. Hank’s mortgage business was struggling, as the bubble seemed poised to burst at any moment. When their second child was born, Hank left his reserve unit with two years left on his contract remaining in the Army. Yet without the extra money, he became more desperate for business. One particularly stressful day, Hank took a call from a hysterical Karen. He had been called up from the inactive reserves and was to be deployed to Iraq. Without him to run the day-to-day operations, the business he worked to build was doomed. Karen, however, thought the steady income from the military would bring some needed financial stability, Hank’s absence notwithstanding.
The couple had been growing distant for months before this and Karen had decided to go graduate school while Hank was gone. While he was still stateside, Karen was often rushed to get off of the phone when he called, late for some class or behind on reading or homework. Once our unit was in country, we would travel to the phone center and Hank was always the first one through with his phone calls. He would speak to his oldest son for a few minutes and then after a few terse exchanges with Karen he would hang up without the air of relief and comfort most of us had after calling home. He was buckling under the pressures of duty, the separation in general, and uncertainty about his future post-Iraq since the mortgage business was all but gone.
I was attached to a unit from Chicago, but our unit was attached to a National Guard battalion from Idaho. Lisa was a platoon leader in the headquarters unit and we often interacted, becoming fast friends. Her husband was a truck driver attached to a different company and stationed on another base. Despite what we thought, even though he was in country with her,this too came with its share of problems. The spoke only through e-mail and rarely saw each other. When they did, the differences in rank prevented them from expressing their love through physical means – a hug, a kiss, handholding – all verboten by US Army standards. She would often wile away the down time by telling us about their relationship and its beginnings.
Matt and Lisa had been friends since he had joined the Idaho National Guard. Yet, that all changed at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin during their annual two-week training. They were at the on-post club when compelled by drink and dancing Lisa kissed Matt. They loaded up on buses to be taken back to their barracks, and once back at their rooms, armed with a small bottle of rum, they located an empty barracks to spend the night in each other’s arms.
It was common knowledge in the unit that the two were a couple, despite the fact that they worked in different sections. Lisa climbed through the ranks and became an officer. Matt, a troubled soldier at best, was still a private first class, but he harbored no jealousy about Lisa’s promotion. In fact, he was very proud of her and often joked about having an Officer “in his pocket.” These words found their way to the commanding officer. In a meeting with the couple, she explained how the regulations were poised to change to disallow any relationships between officers and enlisted soldiers unless they were married. An angry Matt yelled at his captain, “Well then just TRY and stop us from getting married,” and stormed out of the office.
“Well, that wasn’t the result I was looking for. What do you have to say, Lieutenant?”
A shocked Lisa looked at her fellow officer and said, “I think I am getting married!”
When the battalion received orders to deploy to Iraq, Lisa was on the list to go but not Matt. He ran around frantically and found himself a place with another platoon. Iraq was a scary prospect, but now they could face it together. Once they arrived in-country, Matt’s platoon was placed on a base in Tikrit and Lisa’s on our base two hours north near Kirkuk. The only way they could see each other was to convoy between the bases. Each time he would convoy, Lisa would wait by the gate nervously until they arrived. Only rarely did they get to do much more than eat a quick meal or maybe sneak off to her quarters for a few short hours. “It’s maddening,” she told us, “for him to be so close and yet always at least an arm’s length away.”
As our deployment wound to a close, Hank noticed that the letters and e-mails from Karen were becoming more and more infrequent. Hank’s duties were of an administrative nature, so he rarely left the base. Still, this comes with its own pressures. As a squad leader, he also had to deal with increasingly stressed soldiers suffering from the cabin fever that comes from living and working in this horrid desert for almost a year. His happiest moments were his talks with his sons; they were spending more time with Hank’s parents and Karen’s lack of communication worried him. The tension he suffered between work and his personal situation became serious and our commander ordered Hank to take the next rest and relaxation leave, giving him two weeks at home. He spoke to Karen only twice to arrange for transportation home from the airport.
After no less than 20 hours of travel time in cramped military aircraft, Hank arrived in Chicago feeling a mixture of relief and the sense that something bad was about to happen. Karen met him at the airport, accompanied by a man. They had met at school, not unlike her and Hank, and had fallen in love she explained. Hank said nothing when Karen asked for a divorce but after a few tense moments broke the nose of the man standing next to his future ex-wife. He picked up his green duffel bag and walked off to find a cab; he was the only one weeping this time.
Back in Iraq, the tensions were heating up as the second round of elections loomed. During election time, the attacks against civilians and soldiers would double. These usually came in the form of roadside bombs. Matt and Lisa had continued to see each other infrequently, but they were always happy times. Hank once asked his secret, and Matt simply said when he saw his wife – his concerns, his stresses melted away and he was only concerned about her. “Helping her deal with her problems somehow erased mine.” They had started to use the military postal system to send each other letters and small packages, finding joy in the smallest of things.
Right before the election, the couple had not spoken in about three weeks. With the increasing violence, travel between the two bases was only by helicopter, but there were some supplies that by truck. The road between Kirkuk and Tikrit had been heavily attacked, but Matt was so desperate to see his wife, he was the only one to volunteer for the trip. Lisa arrived at the gate to see the guards frantic – barking into the radio and receiving the standard Med Evac reports.Matt’s convoy had been hit and two soldiers were wounded, one dead. The guards did not know the names, so Lisa had no idea about her husband’s fate. After what seemed like days, the vehicles pulled in to the base. Lisa scanned the vehicles not seeing her husband and her stomach went cold. Tears began to form in the corners of her eyes and then she heard her name. In what seemed like slow-motion she turned to see him jump from the back of a large truck – dirty and covered in blood that was not his own.
“I thought…” she stammered.
“Shh,” Matt said, holding his wife and keeping the tears at bay, “It’ll take more than a war to keep me from you.” As the commotion continued around them, they held each other weeping a mixture of joy and despair for being together but in this place.
War by its very nature is destructive, but the casualties are not always victims of some form of violence. The mental distress soldiers suffer upon their return from the war in Iraq or Afghanistan is vastly underreported and undertreated. Some casualties are families ripped apart because the soldier and the spouse do not know how to support each other or ask for the support they need. All too often couples will just talk at each other, each relaying why it is they need the others' support, instead of just listening. Also, ten minute-phone calls and fifteen minutes to use computers, do not lead to healthy communication in relationships. The military is taking "efforts" to reduce the strain on families and couples, but whatever they do it will not be enough. Iraq is not a place for lovers.
*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned.
Originally published 2/2009 at TwoDayMag.com