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 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.
Close but apart
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.
Worrying about dangers
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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