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If maintaining a healthy marriage takes work in the best of times, what happens when a husband and wife both head off into combat? Today more than 44,000 "dual military" couples find themselves in this almost unimaginably difficult situation. But despite long deployments, high casualty rates, and the stress of combat, divorce rates for couples in active duty hover at about 3 percent -- a far lower rate than for civilian first marriages (half of which end within the first five years). Somehow these brave twosomes are working through the obstacles and thriving. To find out how they do it, we asked four couples to talk honestly about the unique challenges of life in a war zone. What they told us is surprising, tender, and sometimes terrifying.
Nina and Robert
Army Reserve Sergeant Nina Ramon, 25
Army Reserve Sergeant First Class Robert Ramon, 36
Married 3 Years
The cottage where Nina Ramon and her husband, Robert, spent their honeymoon wasn't exactly what they had in mind when they tied the knot just before being posted to Afghanistan: a tiny wooden hut at the edge of Bagram Air Base's main runway. "In the middle of the night mice would come into our shack, crawling over my feet and legs, and I'd scream," recalls Nina. Between the rodents and the 24/7 roar of transport planes and fighter jets, their quarters were "hardly a first-class hotel," agrees Robert.
Robert was on his second deployment to Afghanistan and had served in Bosnia. The Afghanistan mission was Nina's first overseas tour. Eventually the couple managed to make the shack feel like home with curtains, shelves -- and mousetraps baited with peanut butter.
Now back home from a yearlong deployment, the two have volunteered to train military public-relations units that will be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to do the work they did there. While they were in the war zone Nina and Robert accompanied the media, including CNN, Fox News, and The New York Times, into the field. Because their work was dangerous they were never sent on the same mission, which could last as long as three weeks. Both came under fire two or three times and Robert remembers one trip during which his group was attacked at night and he juggled taking photographs with a night-vision lens and returning enemy fire with his M16.
Back at Bagram Air Base, about 30 miles north of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, life could be dangerous as well. During a 2007 visit by then Vice President Dick Cheney, a suicide bomber in a car blew himself up at the front gate, killing himself and 23 other Afghans and injuring 20 more. "It was an hour before each of us knew the other wasn't dead," says Robert. "Both of us were really worried."
Nina and Robert agree that experiencing life-and-death situations only strengthened their bond. "I feel so lucky that we were together," says Robert. "After my first deployment no one back home understood what I'd been through. Now, when we hear a loud noise, like a car backfiring, we both jump -- and we both know why."
Air Force Captain Lori Caloia, MD, 30
Air Force Major Jeffrey Ray, 38
Married 2 Years
One early morning over Iraq, Jeffrey Ray's F-15 fighter jet was taking on fuel, tethered in midair to a tanker, which refuels other planes while in flight. He glanced up and spotted his wife, a flight surgeon, in the tanker's cockpit. "The sun was just coming up, and I could see Lori looking down at me," he recalls. "We could hear each other's voices on the radio."
Since Air Force regulations forbid married personnel from living together during deployment, that moment was one of the most intimate the couple had while overseas. Nor was any physical contact permitted between Jeff, a weapons systems officer, and Lori, a physician who cares for flight crews: They weren't even allowed to see the inside of each other's living quarters.
"I couldn't hold Lori's hand, stroke a strand of hair out of her face, or just be alone with her," says Jeff. "Not being able to be together as a married couple was the toughest thing." He flew mostly at night, when Lori was asleep. In the mornings she'd find a note from him pushed under the door: "I made it home all right. I love you."
Ironically, the situation brought them closer, says Lori. "Overall I would much rather be deployed with my spouse than without him."
The first morning they woke up on their return to the United States was like a dream, Jeff recalls. "She was in my arms, and I kissed her good morning. We didn't have Champagne, but we didn't need it."
Army First Sergeant Stephanie Williams, 36
Army Staff Sergeant Carlos Williams, 35
Married 2 Years
Being deployed to different locations in Iraq was tough enough for Stephanie, who's in supply and support logistics, and Carlos, a human resources supervisor, but even worse was the separation from their four children. "We miss watching movies together, going to church," says Carlos. "We miss being a family."
Stephanie worries about the effect of their deployments on the kids; both she and Carlos have been overseas twice. She had never been in a conflict zone during the 10 years she'd served before the United States invaded Iraq. "Then suddenly, in 2003, I was being sent to war, and my son Jah-Kari was only 2. Boy, that was hard! This deployment was rough because our children are old enough to understand that war is where people can get hurt. When I'm home they ask if someone will shoot me when I go to the store." She reassures them that God will protect her -- and hopes they believe her.
Having a wife still in a war zone has been particularly tough on Carlos, especially when he can't reach her. He was terrified one day last year when rockets hit her base. "I'm the husband, and I'm supposed to protect my wife," he says. "But I can't do that from here, and it hurts."
Stephanie and Carlos pray that they'll soon both be home at the same time. And despite the hardships, Carlos credits the Army with saving his life. "I was immature and getting into trouble when I saw a recruitment ad on TV," he recalls. "The Army made me grow up. And then I found Stephanie."
Army Captain Keegan Keller, 27
Army Captain Anthony Keller, 31
Married 5 Years
Tony Keller has one of the most dangerous jobs in Iraq: He is the commander of a cavalry troop conducting counterinsurgency operations, raids, and intelligence gathering. His unit comes under fire several times a week. Tony, who's on his fourth deployment, would prefer to keep the goriest details from his wife. But until Keegan's recent retirement from the Army, her job was tracking all battlefield personnel from Army headquarters in Tikrit. So she was the first to know about casualties. "When I learned about a sniper attack on Tony's unit, my heart stopped," she recalls. "At first I knew only that an officer had been shot but didn't know who." At such times, she says, her solace is prayer.
The Kellers were separated in Iraq by a risky 45-minute helicopter ride, which one of them made every couple of months, just so they could be together for a single day. When Keegan flew in from Tikrit to see Tony in Balad, it was his turn to pray. Once they were in Tony's quarters, a tiny trailer, the couple cuddled up "to do a whole bunch of nothing," recalls Keegan. "But we did it together, and it was wonderful."
Now that Keegan is no longer in the Army the Kellers are focused on starting a family. "When I was deployed it was hard enough for me to leave our two yellow Labs, Hank and Lilly, in my parents' care," Keegan says. "I cried for an hour straight on the drive to the base. I can't imagine leaving a baby."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2009.