Love across enemy lines #2

(…)

The building that houses the Ministry of Labor is an aging bureaucratic tomb, a relic from before the wars and the sanctions crippled the economy and froze Baghdad in time.

It’s shaped like a giant propeller, three long hallways with scuffed tile floors that meet in a center hub, each lined with what used to be offices. A few are cluttered with books toppled from upended shelves, and there are clumps of human excrement in the shadows.

Sean‘s captain tells them they can visit in one of the cleaner rooms on the second floor. Ehda’a comes every third day, Sean‘s day off, and they find an empty office, close the door, and sit together alone, completely alone, for the first time. They start slowly, just kissing, but then they’re necking and petting like two kids in a Buick parked along a Pensacola beach. Except they’re not in Pensacola, and Ehda’a is not an American teenager. Sean knows she’s crossed a boundary: An Iraqi woman, even a secular one, does not allow a man who is not her husband to caress her or to see her body. If they are discovered—no, if Ehda’a is discovered—there will be shame and dishonor, maybe even violence.

But it doesn’t last. Someone complains, just as Rieckhoff knew someone eventually would; it only takes one pissed-off soldier. So Sean and Ehda’a are told they can meet only in the open areas inside the Ministry of Labor. But that doesn’t last, either. Iraqis working with the guardsmen complain that it is immoral for an unmarried Iraqi woman to spend so much time with a foreign soldier. To keep the peace, Sean and Ehda’a are banished to the guardhouse, a cinder-block cube reinforced with sandbags and a machine-gun nest at the front of the compound. She still comes on his days off, still brings food her mother cooks, but sitting for hours in a shack on a main road presents another danger: Any jihadist on the street curious enough to slow down and look can see her fraternizing with the infidels.

They see her on a July day, in her Capri pants and her flowered blouse, her face powdered and her hair uncovered, smiling at the American soldier.

They wait, two men in dishdashas, then watch as she leaves, walks out of the guardhouse, climbs into a taxi; then they follow her in their white sedan. The taxi drives a few blocks, out of sight and out of range of the Americans, and the sedan accelerates, pulls ahead of the cab, skids to a stop. The men don’t get out, but they glare at Ehda’a. One of them screams at her in Arabic.

“You,” he says, pointing at her, “this is not the way a woman should dress. If we see you again, there will be trouble.”

Three days later, Ehda’a is back in the guardhouse. She tells Sean what happened, and what the man said. Sean knows a death threat when he hears one: He tells Ehda’a not to come back, tells her it’s too dangerous, that they can pass notes through interpreters.

She shakes her head. “If I die after seeing you, or coming to see you,” she says, “I’ll die happy.”

Sean is stunned. I would never meet a woman in America willing to die for me, he thinks. I’d never find a gorgeous, smart woman anywhere who’d die for me.

He decides to marry her. Does he want to spend the rest of his life with her? He has no idea. But how does he walk away? How does he tell a woman who has risked terrible shame, who has promised to die happy for him, that he’s a soldier and he’s going home and leaving her here in a city where crazy men will kill her for wearing cropped pants? Marrying her might be a mistake, but it’d be one he can correct. Not marrying her? All he’d have then is regret.

….…………………………………..

There are no rules concerning American soldiers marrying Iraqi nationals. Instead local commanders—in this case, Sean’s captain—have the authority to allow or prevent a wedding, and the issue is more complicated than it seems. In the summer of 2003, before the insurgency fully erupts and Washington is still burbling about grateful Iraqis showering their liberators with flowers and chocolates, it’s a wonderful story, love conquering war and all that; the PR value alone is tremendous. Then again, the United States military is not an international matchmaking service. Sean is part of a combat unit in an active theater of operations.
If one guy having a girlfriend is bad for morale, what’s the effect of a wife? There are security concerns, too: An Iraqi bride is a target for every bad guy in the city, her entire family prey for extortionists who want information on patrol routes and perimeter weaknesses and the like. And what of the groom? Can he function effectively knowing his wife is in danger? Who becomes more important—his fellow soldiers or his new family? Even a subtle shift in priorities could have grave consequences.

Sean’s proved himself a good soldier. He hasn’t let his relationship with Ehda’a interfere with his duties, and she hasn’t presented any more of a risk than the interpreters or the vendors. How much more of a threat could she be as Sean’s wife?

It’s a judgment call. The captain gives his blessing.

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Sean goes to the Green Zone, where the State Department has, if not rules, two pages of instructions under the heading “Marriage of United States Citizens in Iraq.” Sean will have to convert to Islam, which he already knows, but the rest of it isn’t complicated, either: get a blood test and file a couple of forms at the Social Status Court, to which State helpfully provides a crude map. Then a judge has to hear the vows, and it’s done.

Sean also has a partner now. Brett Dagen, the grunt who was wooing the other Iraqi doctor, decides he’s getting married, too. The captain’s behind him, too: He schedules a patrol to the Social Status Court so Sean and Brett can get their papers filed. Sean bribes a clerk to fake the blood test—

No way in hell I’m letting some Iraqi stick a needle in my arm,” he says—and recites to a judge one short sentence in Arabic. “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God,” he says. It’s a conversion of convenience, but it’s enough for the Iraqi courts.

Planning a wedding in Baghdad—a dual ceremony in a war zone between occupiers and the occupied, at that—isn’t easy. Any gathering is a security risk, and the risk increases exponentially with the number of people involved. Every guest, every court clerk, every judge who knows the when and the where is both a potential threat and a link to others who may be as well. The risk is manageable, of course, but the logistics still require thought and time.

And then Sean runs out of time.

At the end of July, his unit, Bravo Company, moves again, consolidating with the rest of the Third Battalion in an old barracks that housed officers for Saddam’s Republican Guard. The quarters are cleaner and cooler, but Sean‘s captain is no longer the highest-ranking officer in the building. He’s outranked by a lieutenant colonel.

This lieutenant colonel doesn’t want any of his men getting married. It’s a judgment call. It’s also an order.

In fact, the lieutenant colonel does not want Iraqi women near his men at all. Ehda’a learns that when she arrives at the gate with a plate of borak, a pastry filled with ground beef her mother prepared, and asks to see Sean. The guards turn her away.

…..…………………………………..

Sunday, August 17. Sean has the day off, but Brett is shaking him awake not long after dawn. “Time to go,” Brett says. “Time to get married.”

Sean hasn’t seen Ehda’a for more than two weeks. They’ve communicated only through e-mail and short letters couriered by interpreters, and Sean’s are by turns hopeful and angry and scheming and lovesick.

“Don’t you worry, babydoll, they will never stop what is meant to be.” And: “I’m sorry about all of this bullshit. I know you will wait as long as it takes to be together, as will I.” Finally: “Hey, babydoll. Me and Brett might have a good idea on how to finish the marriage.”

The idea is a covert mission folded into a regular patrol. Every morning, a squad inspects three neighborhood gas stations, checking the fuel levels in the tanks against the cash in the till to make sure nothing’s being siphoned into the black market. Between stations, Sean and Brett will duck into a secluded courtyard, rattle off their vows, kiss their brides, then move on to the next station. Every man going, Sean believes, knows what he’s getting into. One is even a volunteer, a guy who stepped up when a regular from Brett’s squad was sent off on another mission.

The biggest danger is from the brass. The men are all violating a direct order. Rieckhoff already tried to warn Sean, not so much as an officer but as a friend. He’s sympathetic, wonders if it’s fair for a lieutenant colonel to forbid what a captain has promised. Can you prorate an order? Yes, the military can do that. Maybe it’s not fair, Rieckhoff told him, but think about your career.

“Fuck it, sir,” Sean answered. “What am I gonna do, stay in the army my whole life?” Shit, all he wanted out of the National Guard was a college degree. Is it his fault he fell in love?

The patrol leaves, goes to the first gas station, then moves on to a street corner, where Brett’s fiancée is waiting. She’s been told to meet there by an interpreter named Sadeem, who’s been handling the logistics. Sadeem tells her the wedding is a few blocks away, in the courtyard of a rundown restaurant in Wasiryah, and that she should bring the rest of the party—Ehda’a, their families, a judge—when they arrive on the corner. The patrol goes ahead, waits in the courtyard.

Brett‘s fiancée comes in slacks, Ehda’a in a floral print dress. The soldiers scan the surrounding rooftops and windows for snipers, then set up a defensive perimeter at the courtyard gate while Sean and Brett go inside with their M16s. Vows are exchanged, Ehda’a so nervous she offers Sean her right hand for the ring.

“Now she is your wife,” the judge says. “I urge you to protect her and preserve her honor. Your blood will mix with her blood as a Muslim and as an Iraqi.” Sean kisses Ehda’a on the forehead, drinks a warm Coke, and then mounts up with the squad to check the next gas station.

Sadeem records the ceremony with a video camera. And a correspondent for Cox Newspapers named Larry Kaplow watches and scribbles notes in his pad. He’d heard about the wedding from a source in the courthouse — one small, happy story in a city of so many miserable ones. A few days later, Sean sends Kaplow an e-mail.

“I am confident that it will be a very welcomed story back home,” he writes. “I feel the American public needs a story about something good that happened over here.”

…………………………………………..

 

Sean has been married for eleven days when the Cox story is published, on August 28. Maybe it is welcomed back home. It is decidedly not in Baghdad.

The lieutenant colonel is pissed. Brett Dagen is pissed because his marriage is already over—his bride had second thoughts almost immediately—and yet he’s still in trouble for violating an order. The soldiers on the wedding patrol are hauled in for questioning; Sean wants them all to keep their mouths shut, admit nothing, deny nothing, but they say they were surprised, that they didn’t know what else to do when their sergeant stepped into a courtyard to get married. Sadeem is arrested and briefly jailed, a foreign national breaching security. As for Sean, the lieutenant colonel threatens to bring him up on formal charges; in the short term, he banishes Sean to Baghdad Island, north of the city in the middle of the Tigris, where there is an abandoned amusement park and a band of insurgents who lob mortars at the Americans through the night. The lieutenant colonel also bans the whole company from the Internet, so Sean sends a last letter to Ehda’a. “[The lieutenant colonel] is sending me to Baghdad Island for two weeks so this may be the last time I get to write you for a while. He is trying to take my rank and money. If you see Larry tell him I thought the article was great.

Sean does his tour on the island, comes back, finds a JAG lawyer who helps get his Internet privileges restored. He’s essentially confined to the compound, and Ehda’a is banned from it, but they chat over e-mail. “Hang in there, honey,” Sean writes. “Stay strong for us. Remember, think about how great the future will be and don’t let what is happening right now bother you. I love you so much. So please, just think about how much fun we have together and understand eventually that will be the rest of our lives.” And no court martial ever happens. For all the bluster, on November 14 the army writes him only a memorandum of reprimand “for violating operational security by disseminating patrol routes and schedules to unknown civilian persons.”

A month later, the lieutenant colonel sends him home (a punishment the rest of the Guardsmen stuck in Baghdad find rather odd). A month after that, on January 16, 2004, Sean is honorably discharged from the United States military.

……………………………………………..

Ehda’a keeps working at the Baghdad Hotel, 7,000 miles from her husband, tethered to him only by an Internet connection and borrowed cell phones. There are no flights out of the country that she can take, and the drive to the border is long and dangerous. And what could she do if she got there, anyway? Saddam never allowed doctors to have passports.

But she has a story, a good one, too, about love and war and, now, about how the American military punished a soldier for falling in love with one of the Iraqis they’d come to liberate. 60 Minutes II had tried to do the first story, the simple one of love amid war, after an interpreter working for the producers saw Sean’s wedding announcement in one of the local papers. They got their cameras into Sean’s unit in the fall, but the brass wouldn’t let them anywhere near the groom. They ended up with a few minutes of Ehda’a on tape.

Sean’s out of the army now, doesn’t have to take orders from anyone, can talk to whomever he damn well pleases. He tells CBS, “It was meant to be, and I wasn’t going to let anybody stop that,” and he lets them film him walking through Pensacola Regional Airport for a flight to Amman. In Baghdad, Ehda’a tells another camera crew, “Love can make miracles. I do believe in this now.”

On the morning of February 13, 2004, Ehda’a puts on body armor and climbs into the back of a Chevy Suburban. It’s an eight-hour drive to the border through some of the most volatile territory on the planet, but she’s giddy.

“Sometimes you just fall in love and you don’t know why,” she says. “It’s our fate. I think we’re meant to be together and, oh my God, that’s the thing I have been waiting for.”

There’s a delay at the border because Ehda’a doesn’t have a passport. Then one of the guards at the crossing recognizes her from a newspaper story, the doctor who married the soldier, and then he’s smiling, congratulating her, waving the SUV through to the other side.

Sean is waiting just beyond the border crossing. Snow will fall in Amman tonight, and the afternoon wind blows cold across the high desert. Sean’s wearing jeans and a thin beige jacket, and he’s shivering from the chill and his nerves. A woman he hasn’t seen in almost six months, a woman he’s known only for nine, is riding toward him, and she will step out and he will see her, for the first time, as his wife. He takes a breath, steadies himself.

And then she’s there, almost leaping out of the Suburban, grabbing him, wrapping herself around him, and he’s burying his head in her shoulder and holding her so tightly he lifts her off the sand.

And there is something to be said about that particular moment. Time does stand still and stars do fall from a blazing sky and he knows, right then in the middle of the desert, that he is in love. Someday that is what he will tell his daughter, and that will be the truth.

………….…………………………………..

Sean and Ehda’a spend six months in Jordan, waiting for her visa, and when they land in America it looks nothing like the place Ehda’a has seen in movies. There are no gleaming skyscrapers or bright neon lights or wide boulevards lined with mansions and Jaguars—there is only the flat scrub of the Florida panhandle. Sean’s savings are gone, and the only place he can afford to go is his mother’s bungalow in a little town called Pace, north of Pensacola and next to a speck of a village called Bagdad.

Is that ironic? Perhaps, but Ehda’a does not ponder such things when Hurricane Ivan howls through, snapping trees and blowing down houses and soaking the ground until their septic system backs up into the house. Ehda’a is a coward for hurricanes, too.

Sean gets a job with a surveying company, a war veteran standing on the side of the road with a surveyor’s pole for chump change, watching an endless stream of cars pass by with yellow ribbons stuck to the back. Ehda’a sees the ribbons, too, and on some of those same trucks and Cadillacs she sees a bumper sticker that reads KILL ‘EM ALL, AND LET ALLAH SORT ‘EM OUT.

Her medical degree isn’t recognized in America, so she takes a job selling shoes at Sears, where one of the other clerks asks her if Iraqis ride camels. She stays three months and then gets a job at a pediatrics clinic, where a mother asks her if she’s a Christian, because she only wants Christians tending to her daughter. “I’ll be right back,” is all Ehda’a can think to say before she steps out of the room.

She gets another job at another clinic because it pays better, $14 an hour, and a doctor also asks her if Iraqis ride camels. She is polite when she says that Iraqis drive cars and, by the way, the traffic in Baghdad is awful. The doctor also mentions that a Democrat has never worked there and never will. “I am not a citizen yet,” Ehda’a says, “but when I am, I can choose either party, and I don’t think I will choose the one that wants to kill my family.” She is fired not long after. She is told her English isn’t very good. She is told she should work in a shoe factory.

Ehda’a no longer believes the war was a good thing. “We did not expect Americans, from the most civilized country in the world, would not know what to do,” she says. “How do you expect people who reached the moon would not know what to do?”

She says this now in a two-bedroom apartment with a tiny balcony in a sprawling complex of low-slung buildings with pale green shingles. They moved there after Sean got a job driving a forklift in a factory that makes ceiling tiles. He earns enough to afford a new truck with none of the extras and a suite of soft, tan furniture for the living room, and he’s saving to buy a proper house. They think maybe they’ll move north one day, someplace more cosmopolitan, someplace bluer, where no one will ask Ehda’a if she’s ever ridden a camel. She’ll study and take the exams and get an American medical license, be a doctor again, a professional. One day.

For now, Sean goes to work every shift and wonders if the phone will ring and Ehda’a will be on the line, telling him that her mother and brother are dead. It does not matter that they rarely leave the house in Baghdad that they can no longer afford to heat: Ehda’a’s uncle was in his apartment watching television when a Katyusha rocket came through the wall and through his chest and exploded across the room.

“It’s all different,” Ehda’a says. “When the war started, we all hated Saddam, we were all waiting for him to die. But we did not expect all of this, that Iraq would be—” she looks at Sean, uncertain if she has the correct word—“divided? Yes, divided.”

Sean, too, has rethought the war. When he went to Baghdad, he was welcomed by Iraqis who believed the Americans would rebuild their country. When he left, a man in his battalion was dead, killed by Iraqis who’d hidden a bomb by the side of the road. Years later, the war is still on his television, only it is more than one war now—it’s Shia and Sunnis and jihadists and Americans grinding each other into the sand for…well, for what, exactly? He doesn’t know anymore. If there were no weapons of mass destruction, which reasons for war should he believe? Or should he believe only what he saw and wonder if it was worth it? All those dead bodies. A grieving woman screaming about her dead husband. A soldier with a stump where his leg should be. A little girl selling sodas and watching it all pass by.

His voice cracks when he talks about those things“Me and my wife getting married,” he says, “that was the small story.”

People tell him now and again that he should be grateful for the war, that he found one good and true thing in a very bad adventure. He recoils at the implied moral calculus. Is it a fair trade, his wife, his love, for those bodies stuffed in the back of a truck, for even one tiny fraction of all the death and misery?

No, he knows it is not at all fair. But it’s not his fault and there’s nothing he can do, so he takes what fate has offered. Maybe someday he’ll try to explain it all to his daughter. She was born just before Christmas, and she has thick, dark hair and eyes the color of charcoal. Sean and Ehda’a named her Norah, which they think is very pretty because it means the same thing in so many different languages. It means “the light” .

 

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