Army couple's rarest asset in Iraq: time together

BAGHDAD (AP) - They still feel like newlyweds, five years into
their marriage. A lucky couple?

No, Nathan and Jennifer Williams just haven't seen much of each
other.

The two young Americans, both Army captains, have each been
deployed twice to Iraq on 12-month tours - but in different
locations. Back home, they spent at least another year apart
because of training commitments.

All told, they've been together for two of their five years of
marriage.

The Williamses are among thousands of military couples whose
lives have been disrupted by multiple tours in Iraq and
Afghanistan. Starting a family has been put on hold. And time alone
together, when it comes, is precious.

Every night since November, Nathan, 28, and Jennifer, 30, would
get on the phone to pour out their thoughts about the day,
decompress and chat about the kind of stuff married couples chat
about.

Stationed at different outposts in Baghdad just six miles apart,
they rarely had the chance to see each other in person - just once
or twice a month - so the phone calls were crucial.

"I have been here long enough now that I understand his job so
that he can kind of talk about his day and I understand everything
he is saying," Jennifer said.

Still, the Williamses are luckier than many military couples,
particularly those who have lost loved ones in battle. In both of
their tours, they've served in the same brigade.

And starting this month, it's a relative honeymoon - or a
reunion, perhaps. Nathan commands an infantry company that moved
May 30 from an outpost in north Baghdad to Camp Victory, where his
wife is stationed. So now, they will be able to see each other each
day for the rest of their 12-month tour, which will end in late
September or early October.

In a series of interviews, they remained relatively upbeat about
their lives, coping with the harsh demands of their jobs while not
losing sight of what's needed to remain close.

Rather than heading home to see family and friends, the
Williamses are taking their mid-tour break in New Zealand and
Australia next month so they can have some quality time together.

The couple first met when Nathan, then a high school senior,
visited the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, as part of a
tour of colleges he was thinking of attending. They exchanged a few
words on that first encounter but did not start to date until she
was a senior at Chapel Hill and he was finishing off his sophomore
year there.

Both graduated from Chapel Hill. She joined the Army in 2001 and
he followed suit in 2003.

Jennifer, a cheerful, energetic woman with a relaxed demeanor,
grew up in Wilmington, N.C., and is now an intelligence officer at
Camp Victory. Nathan, from Raleigh, N.C., is a serious-minded,
driven soldier who says leading an infantry company in combat was
his main goal when he joined the Army.

As soldiers - Jennifer will outrank her husband next year when
she makes major - each keenly knows the dangers the other faces.

"You don't only worry about all the basic things that come with
a regular marriage but you also worry about the dangers and if it's
going to be the same person when you return home," Jennifer said.

"The average spouse can only speculate, but I am very aware of
the threats and of the possibilities and I think that makes it more
difficult," she added.

For seven months, Nathan and his 150-member infantry company
used a Saddam Hussein-era bomb shelter in a northern Baghdad
district as their outpost while his wife was stationed on the other
side of town at Camp Victory near the international airport.

Nathan worked an average of 16 to 18 hours a day. He had
problems sleeping and survived mostly on cookies and energy drinks.
He worried about his soldiers, mostly in their late teens or early
20s.

"As a commander, there is that additional layer of
responsibility that everything that your unit does or fails to do
is on your shoulders," he said during an interview in May.

Two months earlier, he somberly mused about his marriage.

"Here I am, living away from my wife again. It is not that I am
worried that she will stop loving me, it's how will all these
separations affect our relationship," he said then.

Jennifer has her own fears. In May, she spoke prophetically of
what could be in store for them.

"I know that if something tragic or horrible does happen to his
company, he is going to be a different man," she said.

Tragedy nearly struck June 9, when his company suffered its
first combat casualty since it arrived in Iraq in November. A
roadside bomb hit one of the company's armored vehicles in northern
Baghdad, wounding a soldier. The bomb struck about five minutes
ahead of the convoy's scheduled arrival at a base to pick up
Nathan, an Associated Press reporter and an AP photographer.

A day earlier, the Williamses happily posed for a photographer
while sitting atop a Humvee outside Nathan's new headquarters at
Camp Victory. Their shoulders were almost touching. But mindful
about public displays of affection in a combat zone, they did not
hold hands or wrap their arms around each other.

Still, they laughed as friends teased them about how happy they
looked.

"With all these separations, we still feel that we are
newlyweds," a beaming Jennifer said moments earlier while seated
next to her husband behind his desk at his office.

"I cannot wait," Nathan said, "to experience the routine and
boredom people say always come with marriage."


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