War Brides: The Stories of the Women Who Left Everything Behind to Follow the Men They Loved

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An Iraqi man would say such things only to a whore. But these American boys, from the land of sexual freedom, are being playful, sweet. She doesn't understand that most of them would hump a stuffed bunny at this point.

War Brides: The Stories of the Women Who Left Everything Behind to Follow the Men They Loved

First Lieutenant Paul Rieckhoff, one of Sean's platoon leaders, sees her, too. He's not pleased. Sure, a woman is a welcome diversion for bored and lonely men, but so is a television set or a case of beer. He'd rather have the TV. Part of his job is to maintain morale, keep his men focused. This isn't Vietnam , he thinks.

No one gets to go back to Saigon and get shitfaced and bang the hookers. They're all stuck in Baghdad on an indefinite tour, hopped up on adrenaline and testosterone. A woman is a variable he doesn't need. Anytime you bring a woman around that many horny guys , he knows, it's bad news. It doesn't matter that Sean and Ehda'a are only talking, that they are only friends.

What matters is what everyone else sees, what they think. Word's already out that the lady doctor is Blackwell's find. One guy gets to have a girlfriend? Even a chance of a girlfriend?

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That's a disaster waiting to happen. Almost two weeks pass. Sean and his squad have a day off, so he decides to take his men to the Republican Palace, the proconsul headquarters in the Green Zone, where there are phone lines and Internet connections and better chow. He asks Ehda'a if she wants to come along. Saddam's palaces are fantastical places, ornate and gaudy and, only a few weeks ago, utterly forbidden to Iraqi citizens. Of course she wants to go. Ehda'a dresses for the occasion.

She's wearing heels, and the ground is slippery as she walks with Sean through the gardens beyond the pool, toward the bank of the Tigris. She grips his arm, and when she slips he catches her waist. She touches his hand, lets it linger…and suddenly she is holding hands with an American soldier on the grounds of Saddam Hussein's palace in a free Iraq. It is nice , she thinks, to live a dream like this.

Is this a date? Someday she will say yes, it is their first date, but not now. She believes Sean is kind and gentle and has beautiful eyes, but he is still a soldier. Soldiers leave.

War: A Love Story

It is very good to convince myself that I am a doctor and he is a soldier , she thinks, because then it is impossible, and you don't have to break your heart. And when he mentions the future, when he says, casually, that maybe someday he will see her in America, she smiles and shakes her head. The war drags on, a low and constant grumble.

Every morning, Sean and his mortar squad sweep each floor of the Ministry of Health, walk the perimeter, then set up at the gate and watch over the parade of the dead. Some nights he volunteers for foot patrols through the neighborhood. Ehda'a eventually gets a job at the Baghdad Hotel, interpreting for the American contractors who've turned the place into a fortress on the Tigris.

When she gets time off, she heads north along the river to Saddam Auditorium to see Sean. She brings food her mother has cooked, and they sit in an outer concourse and eat and talk. The other soldiers don't seem to mind much. If they're not too hot and tired to care, it's more fun to bust Sean's balls about his hajji girlfriend.

There's another guy they can bust on, too, a grunt named Brett Dagen who's talking with another pretty Iraqi doctor. Rieckhoff's not happy about those two, either, but he lets it go. No sense creating a real problem where only a potential one exists. It's been almost a month of talking on the concourse, long enough that Sean would like a little privacy with Ehda'a, a place away from the other guys. His captain tells him they can sit in the auditorium's theater, where it's cool and dark and quiet except for the breathing of soldiers sleeping on rows of red-velvet seats down below.

They settle into two chairs near the top. Sean slides his arm around her shoulders, and Ehda'a tilts her head, nestles it on his shoulder.

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Sean leans over and kisses her on the forehead. She turns away, but only for an instant, and when she turns back Sean kisses her cheek. This is all very new for Ehda'a. She has been kissed before, yes. She has had suitors, those doctors she didn't want to marry, and a boyfriend in college. But romance in Iraq, even among secular students, was tame: Boys and girls were segregated until they enrolled in universities, and even then she saw her boyfriend off campus only once, as his guest at a wedding and chaperoned by her mother.

Now she's nuzzling an American soldier in a dark theater? There is a romance , she thinks. But where does it end? Is he serious? She doesn't know, and Sean doesn't know, either. He likes Ehda'a. Maybe he's even falling in love with her. Or maybe there's just a war outside. Maybe he's tired of standing on a curve in the road in front of the ministry waiting for a pickup full of fedayeen to drive past and machine-gun his squad, and maybe he's tired of sleeping in a large building with a glass facade that one good truck bomb could blow all to hell.

Maybe he's tired of looking at dead people. Maybe he's weary and scared and wants to stay right where he is, in the dark, with his arm around a pretty girl, and believe he's in love. Is it the same thing, being in love and believing he's in love? Would he know the difference? A few days later, Sean's unit packs up. There is little warning, only abrupt orders that the two platoons in Saddam Auditorium are moving north to the Ministry of Labor. Two days pass, and Ehda'a doesn't come.

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Sean wonders if she's okay, if she's safe, if she knows where to find him. He knows where Ehda'a lives with her mother and her brother, so he organizes a patrol for the following day.

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He'll ride into her neighborhood, knock on her door, make sure that she's alive and well, and then he'll go to the Ministry of Health and find the little girl named Zena. When he's done that, he'll go back to being a soldier. Morning comes. Sean's getting his gear ready for the patrol when he gets a call from one of the guards at the gate: There's a woman there to see him.

Sean goes out front. Ehda'a is there, standing at the gate, with that long brown hair, the chocolate eyes. The building that houses the Ministry of Labor is an aging bureaucratic tomb, a relic from before the wars and the sanctions crippled the economy and froze Baghdad in time.

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  7. It's shaped like a giant propeller, three long hallways with scuffed tile floors that meet in a center hub, each lined with what used to be offices. A few are cluttered with books toppled from upended shelves, and there are clumps of human excrement in the shadows. Sean's captain tells them they can visit in one of the cleaner rooms on the second floor. Ehda'a comes every third day, Sean's day off, and they find an empty office, close the door, and sit together alone, completely alone, for the first time.

    They start slowly, just kissing, but then they're necking and petting like two kids in a Buick parked along a Pensacola beach. Except they're not in Pensacola, and Ehda'a is not an American teenager. Sean knows she's crossed a boundary: An Iraqi woman, even a secular one, does not allow a man who is not her husband to caress her or to see her body.

    If they are discovered—no, if Ehda'a is discovered—there will be shame and dishonor, maybe even violence. But it doesn't last. Someone complains, just as Rieckhoff knew someone eventually would; it only takes one pissed-off soldier. So Sean and Ehda'a are told they can meet only in the open areas inside the Ministry of Labor.

    Happy ending to love & war

    But that doesn't last, either. Iraqis working with the guardsmen complain that it is immoral for an unmarried Iraqi woman to spend so much time with a foreign soldier.

    To keep the peace, Sean and Ehda'a are banished to the guardhouse, a cinder-block cube reinforced with sandbags and a machine-gun nest at the front of the compound. She still comes on his days off, still brings food her mother cooks, but sitting for hours in a shack on a main road presents another danger: Any jihadist on the street curious enough to slow down and look can see her fraternizing with the infidels.

    They see her on a July day, in her Capri pants and her flowered blouse, her face powdered and her hair uncovered, smiling at the American soldier.