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|March 5-11, 2009
For better or for worse
National Guard couples serve together in Afghanistan
by Kim Barker
KABUL, Afghanistan — The couple’s newlywed apartment isn’t much.
It’s a tiny room with plywood partitions that don’t reach the ceiling, and three other soldiers live in adjoining rooms in the cramped wooden hut.
Adding to the awkwardness, before 11 p.m. each night, Spec. Elizabeth Fozard has to leave and return to the women’s hut, or she’s breaking curfew.
It’s not exactly a honeymoon here on the Camp Phoenix base in Afghanistan.
Fozard and Staff Sgt. Brian Hempstead are among at least 13 married couples serving in this war zone with the Illinois National Guard, part of the Guard’s largest deployment since World War II.
Five of the couples live at this camp in Kabul, while others have been assigned together at other bases or split up throughout Afghanistan. A sixth couple is being reunited at Camp Phoenix in February after the husband rejoined the Guard so he could be deployed with his wife.
Being married on base is not conducive to romance, but the couples are allowed to share a few private moments here and there.
And they agree that having their spouse along on an overseas deployment sure beats a long separation.
“It’s better than nothing,” said Fozard, 25, of Forsyth, whose own hut is about 10 yards from her husband’s. “Nobody (in the men’s hut) really makes a big deal about me being there, as long we’re quiet. And they’re always playing video games anyway.”
For married fun, there is not much to do in Afghanistan for a Guard couple like Hempstead and Fozard, who wed last July.
One couple plays ping-pong and video games. Another has pizza night. Another goes for tea at an Afghan shop on the base.
Another watches movies and eats popcorn. And two couples plan to renew their vows in Afghanistan — wearing their fatigues, in the base chapel.
“It’s nice to have my wife here,” said Maj. Doug Bury, 45, who will renew his vows with his wife of six years, Capt. Gina Mathia, in March. “We usually carve an hour or two a night to be together. Watch TV, read books, talk. It’s just nice having someone next to you.”
The couples say they try to be sensitive to other soldiers, knowing they are separated from their own loved ones, and try to avoid allowing jealousy to become a problem.
But often there is little privacy. There are no public displays of affection, no hand-holding, no touching. And some soldiers have to salute their higher-ranked spouses — not the best way to keep the power balance in a relationship.
“It’s our running joke that I’m going to pay for every salute and ‘Hey sir,’ “ said Maj. Stanley Manes, 44, of Champaign, whose wife, Kelly, is a sergeant.
Although the Army used to frown on deploying couples together and even banned sexual relations between single men and women in combat zones, those policies have quietly changed in recent years. Recognizing the toll that long deployments were taking on marriages, the Army — whose rules apply to the National Guard — in 2006 opted to allow deployed couples to live together in Iraq, depending on space availability.
The Army also changed its general order banning unmarried male and female soldiers from visiting each other and banning sex; as of last April in Afghanistan, a new policy allowed visits and did not mention sex.
At Camp Phoenix, unmarried men and women are allowed to be in each other’s rooms between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m. But the door is supposed to be kept open. In multi-person housing units, the visitor must be announced, and other residents must consent.
In Afghanistan, married couples have lived together in the past, but there is no specially designed Couples Row, as on some bases in Iraq. The Illinois National Guard has decided that couples can live together, but only if “suitable housing” is available. And at a crowded base like Camp Phoenix, that’s unlikely, officials say.
That means Lindsay Pettyjohn and Byron Steele, who married on a military leave in November, have still not been able to live together. Steele lives next to Hempstead, so the two couples are often in the hut at the same time.
Their wooden hut feels more like a college dormitory than a place for newlyweds. A “Girls of Brazil” calendar hangs on Hempstead’s partition; his wife said she had given up on that discussion. The four men in the hut often pass their time playing video games.
“We kind of banked on being able to live together, but in reality, I told her not to count her chickens before they’re hatched,” said Steele, 28, a staff sergeant from Mount Carmel.
Across the camp, in the housing called “Lego Land,” the more senior soldiers have their own small rooms, with thin metal walls that seem to magnify the sound of even a yawn next door. Here, Frank Harrold and Rebecca Bigger-Thomas, of Normal, each have their own room.
They see each other at meals. During the day, they send e-mails and text messages. After work, they watch movies in Harrold’s room and talk to their children back home.
“We’re married, so we can shut the door,” joked Bigger-Thomas, 48, a master sergeant who works as an assistant inspector-general.
When they were deployed in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, they were the only married couple in their company and they lived together for half their deployment, pushing together two wooden single beds and ordering an air mattress online.
The couples here say they are lucky. Unlike separated couples, not knowing what a spouse is going through every day with the void that comes with distance and war, these spouses know exactly what their partners face and the dangers outside the gates of Camp Phoenix.
A suicide attack in January injured five Guard soldiers, one seriously, outside another Kabul base. So far, none of these soldiers has been near any action, but that does not stop their spouses from worrying — when one spouse is on a mission that runs long, when jammers prevent phone calls from connecting.
Despite such stress, these soldiers say they are trying to keep in mind the real reason they’re here — helping Afghanistan.
“We didn’t want to live together,” said Sgt. Kelly Manes, 30. “We’re here for a completely different reason. Everyone else here is dealing without their spouse, their family, their children. I feel lucky just to get to see him. But every second? No. We’re already married.”
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