Few Battlefield Romances From Iraq

In Baghdad in May 2003, amid the chaos, fear and hope (it is easy to forget how much hope there was in those early weeks when Americans and Iraqis began meeting face to face after years of tyranny and war), Jimmy and Lena were among the first to fall in love. He was a career officer in the U.S. Army—Capt. James Michael Ahearn from Concord, Calif., winner of two Bronze Stars, veteran of tours in Korea, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. She was from a middle-class Baghdad family that had seen better days. Lena Ghadeer, her divorced mother, her brother and four sisterswere struggling to keep up appearances when American soldiers dragged Saddam's statue off its pedestal and turned their world upside down.

"You know, you're a really pretty lady," Jimmy told Lena the first day they met, courting her with the kind of straightforward gentility that Americans were known for back in the days of Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. He would bring food for her family and eat with them when he could. He warned away neighbors challenging the Ghadeers' claim to a house that Saddam had confiscated. Lena was 27 and Jimmy was 39. But such age gaps are common among Iraqi couples, and he was tall and fair—Lena still talks about his blue eyes—and he was kind. They had known each other less than a month, less time than it had taken for America to conquer Iraq, when he asked her to marry him. Then in another month he was gone, back to the United States. Not for another year would they have their wedding—on July 4, 2004, in Amman, Jordan. Then, as visa processing dragged on, it was almost another year still before Lena finally landed in America. In January 2006, Jimmy and Lena had a little girl. They named her Khadijah (after the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad) Mariam (after the mother of Jesus) Ahearn. The baby smiled like the future her parents dreamed of.

Such romances have been part of the American way of war for as long as anyone alive can remember. In the 1940s, wherever U.S. troops were deployed, whether among steadfast allies or recently conquered enemies, and regardless of culture, language, religion or the best efforts of the military hierarchy to prevent "fraternizing," soldiers and locals got married. "War brides" (and a handful of grooms) came to the United States from Britain and Australia, Italy, France and eventually Germany and Japan. Their stories were the stuff of comedy ("I Was a Male War Bride" with Cary Grant) and tragedy (James Michener's "Sayonara," about thwarted love in occupied Japan in the early 1950s). A reasonable estimate of the total number approaches 1 million from 50 different countries. Certainly there were hundreds of thousands. War brides from Japan, the Philippines, China and Korea, for instance, increased the population from those countries in the United States by 20 percent in just 17 years from 1947 to 1964. By the 1970s, thousands more spouses had been brought to American shores from Vietnam and, sadly, like Miss Saigon, many other partners were left behind.

What is striking about the Iraq War is not that couples have met and fallen for each other and succeeded like Jimmy and Lena in getting married. It's that so few of them have. State Department records show that after more than four years of occupation, only about 2,400 visas have been granted to Iraqi spouses and fianc?es. Many of those may be marriages to Iraqi-Americans. (Neither the State Department nor the Pentagon breaks down the figures in detail.) Among the rest—several hundred—the few love stories between American soldiers and Iraqi civilians that have happy endings are ones of enormous patience as well as the enormous passion needed to bridge chasms of language and history, politics, religion, insurgency and, yes, terror. Many of the Iraqis interviewed for this story asked that only part of their names or their nicknames be used to identify them, fearing that their families still in Iraq or living as refugees might be targeted. Those couples living in Baghdad are even more afraid. Every one of them has seen the clash of civilizations up close and personal.

This is not just a different kind of war, it's also a different kind of American military than existed 40 or 50 years ago—one that may talk about engaging hearts and minds, but spends many of its resources trying to keep them at a distance. The insistent demands of "force protection" and the insidious efficiency of the insurgents' bombs and booby traps have isolated the American soldier from the population he or she was once tasked to liberate. We may not lament the lack of bars, dance halls and whorehouses for today's troops. But in Iraq there's hardly any human contact at all that isn't at the point of a gun.

In 2003 and early 2004, when many of these love stories began, Iraqis and Americans could relate as people do anywhere, looking each other in the eye, shaking hands, sometimes holding hands. Today, more often than not, they are separated by blast walls or windshields thicker than the glass in a Sea World shark tank. In that sense, too, the dwindling number of couples who beat the odds to be together tells the sad, tortured tale of the American experience in Iraq.

There is, first, the matter of history. No event in the Middle East, no relationship, ever begins in the present. There is always a past. In Iraq, that is one long chronicle of conflict that has shaped the needs and expectations of the Iraqi people.

Zena Majeed was 6 years old when her first war began. She remembers the thrum of helicopters flying overhead as Saddam Hussein announced in September 1980 that Iraq was in a fight to the finish with Iran. Her father was working for a children's book company, but as a Reserve officer in the Army he was called to the front. Zena was 14 by the time he came home for good. Her second war came just two years later, when Saddam invaded Kuwait and the Americans launched Desert Storm. There followed more than a decade of international embargoes and personal privations as her parents sold off furniture, jewelry, anything that they had, just to survive and to buy books for Zena's medical studies. Then in 2003, soon after she took her degree, the countdown began to yet another war.

"We knew this was going to be the end. You could tell. You could see it in people's faces," says Zena, who has grown into a raven-haired beauty. On the receiving end of shock and awe, Zena lived through 20 days of constant terror. "I thought I was going to die from the fear," she says. "I was hiding under a blanket." Crazily she thought, "Oh, the blanket is going to protect me." Then she tried to hide in a small space between a refrigerator and the wall. "I just wanted to feel safe."

Wars push people together, says Benjamin Karney, a behavioral scientist with RAND Corporation, "so when there's a threat, a lot of people look for connections." This is especially true among soldiers, who face the constant threat of death. In a country as bloody as Iraq, it's also true of civilians.

When the bombing stopped, "there was no government, no security," Zena says. The precision-bombing campaign had, amazingly, left the capital mostly intact, but looters were tearing it apart. Bodies lay in the street. And then, there they were in front of her: the Americans. "We didn't know what these soldiers were going to do. We just tried to hide, especially the women and kids. And then we started hearing the good news: 'The Americans are friendly. They are going to help Iraq.' So, people started going out more often. And we started to see American soldiers helping people, and even helping direct traffic." The Iraqis responded. "People felt sorry for the soldiers with all this equipment loaded on them. So people took water, and then they took food."

Zena tried to continue her medical residency at a hospital in Samawah, more than four hours south of Baghdad, but American convoys often blocked the road, and finally she gave up. In early 2004 she got a job as an interpreter (a "terp" in soldier slang), working in the five-square-mile compound known as the Green Zone around the old presidential compound in the heart of Baghdad. It was supposed to be the safest place in the capital for soldiers, diplomats and government officials.She was translating for a medical and environmental unit of the U.S. Army in April that year, listening to a briefing about dental care to be presented at a local school, when Lt. Col. Richard Allinger walked in on the group. She remembers that the fit 52-year-old geologist from Spokane, Wash., looked much more serious than the other soldiers she'd met. "I thought he must be a general," she says now, laughing. Allinger saw her soft brown eyes and couldn't forget them.

Within weeks, like Jimmy and Lena and many other couples who meet under intense pressure—one partner far from home, the other in a home she cannot recognize—Rich and Zena felt they were in love. "That's the war," says Zena. "Everything goes fast." After so much pain and privation over so many years, many Iraqis were looking for nothing but peace. The American lieutenant colonel helped Zena find some semblance of it. "With Rich, I felt just safe to be with him."

For all the forces pushing Americans and Iraqis together in this war, though, even greater ones are driving them apart. The foremost is religion. In Iraq, as in most of the rest of the Middle East, Islam is not just the predominant faith, it is the core of the culture. It is the roots of history and the solid trunk of all traditions, a way to organize the course of a life and also the course of every day from sunrise to the hour of sleep. How many American soldiers understood those facts as they rolled into Baghdad? Few. Even among those couples who fell in love, the abyss of religious and cultural misunderstandings has been hard to cross. In times of enormous stress and fear, people reach back to their own faiths.

Who wouldn't pray under the sporadic thunder of mortar shells in the Green Zone, or when driving through Iraq's savage streets waiting to be blown apart by a hidden roadside bomb or a suicide driver? Leo Barajas certainly did. A contractor from Texas managing the reconstruction of Saddam's Republican Palace,he might not have attended church regularly at home, but he called on the Almighty often enough after Halliburton shipped him to Baghdad in the wake of the 2003 invasion.

Leo, at 34, was responsible for some 200 people. All of them were scared. Grown men would lose it. They would tell him they wanted out. He had to calm them. Then, he had to calm himself. He prayed for the ability to endure all he faced in Iraq. He prayed for the friends who had died there and for the three children he had by an earlier marriage back home. He didn't want to leave them fatherless. "I had to wake up by faith, sleep by faith and do my job by faith," he says.

His romance began when a co-worker recommended a young woman to work in Leo's office in August 2003. He remembers driving to the offices of a British contracting firm in the Green Zone to pick her up for an interview. "Hi, I'm Maria," she said as she jumped into his truck. "Are you Mexican?" he asked, thinking of his own heritage. "No, I just have a Christian name," she said. "My real name is Mariam. The translation is 'Maria,' like the Virgin Mary." A few days later, when he introduced her to a colleague, he joked that she'd stolen his heart. After a few weeks he realized that, indeed, she had.

Mariam, 21, is younger, taller and no less striking than her sister—Lena Ghadeer, who by that time was already engaged to Jimmy Ahearn. In that summer of 2003, the taboos against cross-cultural marriages seemed to be weakening.By the end of the year, when Leo was out of Iraq for a few weeks, the plans for another Ghadeer wedding were already well underway. Not until he got back did Mariam tell him he would have to convert to Islam.

"Why don't you convert to Christianity?" he asked.

"No. I've been a Muslim all my life," she said.

"Well, I'm older than you and I've been a Christian all my life."

After many tears she said, "I guess we can't get married."

"I love you. But I guess we can't," Leo told her.

There quickly developed a widespread impression among Iraqis that U.S. forces just didn't care about the intense pride they took in their intertwined culture, history and faith. The Americans' obliviousness engendered anger, then hatred as U.S. troops broke down doors in the middle of the night, herding women into kitchens, men into yards. One of the incitements to battle in bloody Fallujah was the rumor that members of the 82nd Airborne were looking down on roofs where women were sleeping at night. The wellspring of insurgency lay, not least, in a sense of humiliation among people who felt violated by the very presence of foreigners. In such an environment, any cultural slight grows that much more treacherous.

Among cosmopolitan, educated Baghdadis, who are the Iraqis most likely to meet Americans and speak their language, one used to see few of the scarves, veils, chadors, short robes or long beards that foreigners associate with Islam. But their sense of identity as Muslims is strong nonetheless, and they affect a sense of modesty and propriety that some Americans might find Victorian. Lena and Mariam'smother, Muna, knew only a few words of English. One, which she employed frequently when Leo would come to visit and sit too near her young daughter, was "space, space."

For the Americans, even those involved with the most Westernized Iraqis, navigating this minefield was fraught, if occasionally refreshing. Army Maj. Angela Barzo worked as a civil-affairs officer in Baghdad in 2004. Over lunch in the Green Zone one day, talk centered on a couple of American soldiers who were engaged to Iraqi women. "Well, let's turn the tables," Barzo said jokingly. "Where are the single guys?" "I'm good to go," piped up a young Iraqi interpreter everyone called MJ.

So he was. Their relationship, though, consisted of ever longer and ever more personal talks. After several weeks, Angie sent MJ a text message one night on his cell phone: "I'm falling in love with you." As her brief tour approached an end in January 2005, she sent him another text: "Will you consider marrying me?" She was 39; he was 32. She didn't want to let the moment pass. After the sustained suspense of their courtship, their first kiss was as fervent as adolescence. "It was all so pure," MJ remembers. "I will never forget." Others recall holding hands like teenagers in the back of a darkened, empty theater, or caressing in a Green Zone garden.

In the two years after Angie left Iraq, she saw MJ for only 12 days in Cairo, where he was waiting for a visa. Once, on the phone, she told him she was sunburned from the beach, and he chided her for showing her body to strangers. When he finally flew to Chicago in February this year, he warned her beforehand that he would not hug her in public because he was a conservative man. But when he walked through the doors and saw her, he threw his arms around her. "I didn't want to let her go," he says. "I just wanted to smell her."

Religion remains a problem for Angie and MJ. She had converted to Islam after they became engaged; she studied the Qur'an; she even gave away her two dogs, which MJ considered "unclean," as many Muslims do. But eventually she turned away from the mosque and back to her own traditions. MJ made his peace with it, she says. But they try not to talk about the subject. "We know what the differences are and where we stand," he says.

Leo Barajas, the contractor, and Mariam Ghadeer found an accommodation when he agreed to convert, at least temporarily, for the marriage ceremony. But her sister Lena's husband, the gentle, blue-eyed Jimmy Ahearn, was genuinely fascinated by Islam. He told Lena he wanted to convert because he was a believer. At a ceremony in Amman, the week they got married in July2004, he easily intoned before a judge the critical profession of faith: "There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God."

The American invasion had brought with it a promise of freedom and also of prosperity. "We thought, 'Oh, we are going to have a good life, finally'," Zena Majeed remembers thinking soon after the Americans came. "We started to have dreams like we were going to be, maybe, Hong Kong with those tall buildings, or like the United Arab Emirates." But the most important freedom, from fear, was neglected, and the prosperity never materialized. People "got tired," says Zena. "They thought, 'Oh, we are going to lead a different life!' And then eight months later there was nothing. No electricity. Nothing." When insurgent attacks against "the foreign occupier" began in earnest in October 2003, says Zena, "some people were happy."

The insurgency has divided Americans from Iraqis like no fatwa, no scolding mother ever could. By the time Rich Allinger started courting Zena in the spring of 2004, a sense of siege had descended on the Green Zone, where the blast walls grew ever higher to protect against suicide bombers. Members of the unit that preceded Allinger's "could walk freely," he remembers. "They could put on civilian clothes, go out and have dinner with their Iraqi counterparts, shop, go to teahouses. But by the time we arrived we could not go out unless we were in a force- protection convoy with a gun truck in front and in the back." Whenever he walked outdoors with Zena, he had to wear a helmet and full body armor. She wore nothing but her street clothes.

Any Iraqi who works with the Americans, much less dares to fall in love with one, is likely to be hunted down by insurgents or militias. "LH," a Shiite who got a job interpreting for the U.S. military in November 2005, was nearly kidnapped that fall. His brother had been shot by insurgents in 2004 but survived. A friend wasn't so lucky. His body was found with a broken hand, bullet holes in the legs and a drill hole in the back of the head. And yet, LH allowed his friendship with Army medic Vanessa Kirk to grow, and in 2006, when they had known each other for a year, he proposed.

Vanessa, a Navajo who had grown up in the arid Southwest, felt comfortable in the harsh climate of Iraq and at ease with the differences between cultures. But as she fought for nine months to bring her fianc? back to the United States, she saw that fear and suspicion would pursue the couple no matter where they were. "You would have to be a rock to deal with some of the people that I had to deal with," she says. "I even had one woman [Immigration officer] tell me that we were at war with Iraq and 'you're trying to get an Iraqi into the United States'."

As the original mission of the war—to liberate a people—became a mockery, many individual relationships became almost personal crusades. For Rich Allinger, there was a tension between the efforts to do good for the Iraqi people and the encroaching evil of violence all around. "We were just doing wonderful things, rebuilding hospitals, visitingschools. And then right on the other side of that would be the rockets and the mortars and the suicide bombs and then you'd walk into the hospital and you'd see a 19-year-old boy with his legs in a red bag. And it was very painful, very hard to deal with."

Sgt. Sean Blackwell of the Florida National Guard was posted on guard duty at the Iraqi Health Ministry in the spring and summer of 2003. Even then, he watched each day as bodies were taken to the nearby morgue: mangled, burned, riddled with bullet holes; they came one after another, he thought, like parts on a factory line.

On a hot day in May, he met Ehdaa, a doctor looking for a job after leaving a hospital in the provinces where her Westernized ways were deemed too provocative. Ehdaa's gleamingeyes and wide smile brightened his day, and he tried to help her. But to many Iraqis their relationship only tainted her further. When he and a buddy who'd been seeing another Iraqi woman doctor decided to get married in a joint ceremony three months later, the judge told Sean of his new wife, "I urge you to protect her and preserve her honor." Sean kissed Ehdaa on the forehead. "Don't worry," he told her. "We're married now and there's nothing they can do."

The other marriage quickly dissolved. But Sean would not give up. After a year he got Ehdaa into the United States and took her to live in the little town of Pace, in the Florida Panhandle. Last December, their daughter, Norah Blackwell, was born, a beaming child who has her mother's large round eyes and her father's ears. Like other Americans who've married Iraqis, Sean feels as if he did something positive in this war by saving one life, perhaps, and creating another. "I got married for a lot of reasons, but none of them were love," he said. Not then, anyway. "I knew I was doing something good. I was either going to marry her, get her out of that situation and she'd at least be safe, or things would work out the way they have, and we would be together forever."

Sadly, even as these relationships continue and deepen, so does America's tragic relationship with Iraq. Some couples are reluctant to leave. In recent weeks, NEWSWEEK has interviewed an American accountant and his Iraqi fianc?e—a petite, stylish bookkeeper in designer jeans—who've built a semblance of American suburban life in the confines of the Green Zone while they await her visa. Another couple, an American plumber and his Iraqi bride, live near a helicopter pad. The home he's cobbled together from a derelict house shakes and shivers every time one of the birds lands or takes off, but they've decorated it with teddy bears and a Santa Claus statuette, an Alpine scene and generic pictures of fresh-faced babies. Their own toddler, a big-boned boy who greets visitors with high-fives, is an American citizen reared all his short life in the Green Zone. His parents are in no rush to get to the United States. "Different place, different traditions," says the little boy's mother. "I don't have my best friends there. I like my country."

Among those who have left, some couples have felt the pull of Iraq as the war goes on and on. Ehdaa Blackwell, in Florida now, yearns to be reunited with the family she left behind. LH, with Vanessa Kirk in Maryland, says he is thinking of going back to try to "help our troops and to make Iraq safe again." Rich and Zena Allinger have settled into a comfortable life in Spokane, Wash., with his sons from a previous marriage. But recruiters for big contracting companies come calling, and for a lieutenant colonel, the financial temptation of returning to active duty is considerable.Leo Barajas, Mariam'shusband, says he recently got another offer from Halliburton, and the possibility of a lucrative position for Mariam was dangled in front of them, too. But "it's too dangerous for her," he says. "Even with the money, it's not worth it."

They know from experience. Lena's husband, Jimmy Ahearn, was redeployed to Iraq earlier this year, with a civil-affairs unit. His job was to try to reach out to the local population that he had come to know and respect, learning their needs, offering help if possible. As the husband of an Iraqi and a convert to Islam, he believed he was in a better position than most American soldiers to do the job.

Jimmy and Lena spoke on the phone or texted or e-mailed just about every day. On July 3, the eve of their third anniversary, he wrote to his father that he'd seen some early Fourth of July fireworks when "some jackass initiated his little bomb as my truck was passing by (somewhat little anyway)—scared the bejesus out of me but I'm fine … I'm getting way too old for this; tomorrow had better be a quiet day." And so it was. Then, on July 5, there was no phone call home, no text message, no e-mail. On his way to talk to a group of Iraqis, Jimmy's truck had hit another roadside bomb.

On July 25, Maj. James Michael Ahearn was buried in Arlington cemetery. More than 300 people came to mourn him. Lena, the war bride widowed by a war without end, saw to it that in the tradition of Islam Jimmy was cleansed and buried with a Qur'an at his side. Last month she packed up the home they had made together near Fort Bragg, N.C., and moved to Texas to be closer to her sister Mariam. As Lena put pictures of Jimmy into boxes, her toddling daughter called out "Baba," Arabic for Daddy, whenever she saw his face.