For Army couple, rarest asset during deployment is time together

Married military officers strain to stay connected

Jennifer and Nathan Williams have lived apart for much of their marriage because of deployments. Jennifer and Nathan Williams have lived apart for much of their marriage because of deployments. (Dusan Vranic/Associated Press)
By Hamza Hendawi
Associated Press / June 19, 2009
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BAGHDAD - 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 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.

All told, they have 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 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 stuff married couples discuss.

Stationed at different outposts in Baghdad 6 miles apart, they rarely had the chance to see each other in person - just once or twice a month.

“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 have served in the same brigade.

And starting this month, it’s a relative honeymoon. Nathan commands an infantry company that moved 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 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 is 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 that they can have some time together.

The couple first met when Nathan, then a high school senior, visited the University of North Carolina at 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 his sophomore year.

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.

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 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.’’

Jennifer has her own fears. In May, she spoke 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 Jennifer as well as an Associated Press reporter and 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.

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