Saturday, September 5, 2009

Married Sergeants Who Really are Friends

I wrote the following for a military publication but wonder if these two are not interesting enough that I should try to send the story to People or something in that vein. Please email, comment, let me know what you think. The names are changed, but their real names, first and last, all begin with M.

When a husband announces at lunch or a party, “My wife is my best friend” within the next 15 minutes he will prove beyond doubt, usually with other guests exchanging knowing smiles out of his view, that she is nothing of the sort. No definition of friend, let alone best friend, will cover the complete lack of shared interest and activities he will blithely go on to describe. [SIBEBAR: Our Amazon Adventure Tour]

Nick and Nora Nordstrom never mentioned friend, best friend, or anything of the sort during the hours I spent with them. She is a sergeant first class, the maintenance platoon sergeant for Delta Company, 2-104 General Services Aviation Battalion. He is a staff sergeant, the sergeant in charge of quality control for the same company. Their offices are 30 feet apart in a row of containers outside the maintenance hangar she runs.

On a 120-degree afternoon on Tallil Ali Air Base, Southern Iraq, I found the two of them sitting together in her office. The small space was cluttered with a half-dozen two-by-two-foot-square, one-foot high foam-filled cases that house sensitive, calibrated test equipment. The equipment had been used in a recent major service of a CH-47 “Chinook” helicopter. The tagged and color-coded wires and instruments were in the wrong spaces, some even the wrong cases. “The mechanics use them then put them back f#$ked up. Then I have to unf#$k them up. Sometimes I go and unf#$k the mechanic.” (In the article for publication, I used screw up and unscrew which doesn't have the emphasis her actual words have.)

Nick and Nora are helicopter maintenance professionals. Sloppy work habits—even when their crews are pushed 24 hours a day support troop transport in a war zone—drive them crazy. They sat together in the office enjoying the newly acquired air conditioning in Nora’s office and carefully stowing the test instruments in the proper places in their cases. While they worked, they made jokes about who last used the instruments and if there were any hope that soldier would eventually develop good work habits.

A week later I was talking to Nora in her office when Nick walked in to ask about which order two Chinooks and a UH-60 “Blackhawk” should be towed into the hangar. It would seem simple enough, but they had an increasingly arcane discussion of the actual versus scheduled time the major components would arrive, whether the best mechanics could work longer hours on the most critical jobs, would the component shops be able to support the jobs in the order they came in. They disagreed initially. They raised their voices in the middle of the argument. But as friends and experts, they reasoned with each other and came to an agreement based on the complex decision factors they carry around in their heads.

Nick and Nora are one of the five couples in their 600-soldier battalion who are married and live with their spouse in Iraq. Like any two other sergeants, the Nordstroms live in a two-person room in a Containerized Housing Unit (CHU). The big difference in the Nordstrom CHU is the two single beds are pushed together in the middle of the room against the far wall and they share a large, leopard-pattern quilt. “My guys call this the porn quilt,” Nora said. Other than that, they each have a beige metal locker and matching end table. After working together from 7 am to 6pm and eating dinner together in the chow hall, they go back to the CHU, tramp over 100 yards of gravel to their respective shower CHUs, then spend the evening together watching TV and getting on line. They have one computer they pass back and forth in the bed for email and Skype calls.

Ask other sergeants deployed here and many say, “I would like to have my spouse in country” because the five married couples are the only soldiers having Army-sanctioned sex in the battalion. But those same soldiers cannot imagine sharing a 180-square-foot space with their spouse, especially if they have to see their spouse all day at work. In their CHU as at work, the Nordstroms share interests and discuss them as friends do.

They live in Jonestown, near Fort Indiantown Gap PA where they both have full-time technician jobs. The Nordstroms have two children currently staying with Nora’s older sister Valery Fuhrman on her farm in Iowa. Nick and Nora agreed before the deployment started they would not take a mid-tour leave to go home. They both feel it is easier for everyone involved, especially the Valery, if they are completely gone for the year. They talked about the disruption in control if they show up and disappear again. They will take a four-day rest and recreation pass to Qatar, but will be saving their leave to spend time with ten-year-old Anthony and eight-year-old Emalee when they get home.

They should know. This is their second deployment together. In 2004 they went to Afghanistan—no “Honeymoon” CHU on that trip. Valery also cared for Anthony and Emalee during that deployment. “They like being on Valery’s farm,” Nora said. “But my daughter is having some trouble with this deployment.” Nora struggles with whether she and Nick have made the right choice, but she speaks resolutely about the dilemma she faced. “I decided I want to be there if something happens to Nick and he feels the same way. I come from close family. The kids love Valery and they get to live on a real working farm for a year.” Nick and Nora are aware that their choice is not the one every couple would make. “It works for us. We are more fortunate than most soldiers. During both deployments we had each other.”

One evening I was in their CHU to review some pictures of Nora’s soldiers. While she looked at the pictures, she and Nick talked about whether or not to get a dog their mother offered them. They discussed the relative merits of the dog, the deal they were offered, the care involved and the other details. Nora admitted it made sense and she was being irrational, but she was not sure about the commitment to caring for the dog because they are both full time Army National Guard soldiers when they return to America. I waited in for one of them to argue using guilt, obligation or something else that would carry the discussion into an argument. It never happened. While she looked at pictures of her mechanics in, around, under and on top of helicopters, she decided Mom’s offer was too good to pass up and they would find a way to get proper care for the dog. “The kids will be no help after two months, but we already know that,” she said.

Even though they live easily and happily together in the CHU, this is their second deployment together and they know the envy other soldiers have for their living arrangement. Nora thinks the envious soldiers should, “deal with it. We went through a lot to get deployed together and our family makes it possible, but it’s not easy.” The first time I asked Nick about the “Married CHU” he said, “I was hoping they would stick us all in GP mediums (20-man tents).” The man with any special privilege is a target in a military unit and as the deployment wears on there are few privileges more special than being one of ten soldiers out of 600 who have a love life. Nick knew coming into this deployment he would have to deal with the envy and on that day he would have been happy to opt out.

Can lovers be friends? CS Lewis in his book The Four Loves says it is possible, in the same way that it is possible for two friends to become lovers. But in each case Lewis says, “shared activity is the soil in which friendship grows. When there is no shared activity, there can be no real friendship.” The tone of Lewis’ comments indicates there is a lot of wishful thinking when people discuss the subject. In certain circles it is almost required that two a couple say, “My spouse is my best friend” when they spend almost no time together, share no interests and disagree on money, kids, jobs, and in-laws.

The Nordstroms both repair and maintain helicopters as a profession. They are both soldiers—they can move, shoot, communicate and pass all of the range, fitness, and leadership qualifications necessary to be a good soldier outside the maintenance hangar as well as in it. They deal with all the stresses of separation from their children and family together, not by trying to push their own agenda on the other. As far as I could tell, they seem to be in agreement as to how to raise their children and what is important for their family life. Nick says their relationship is “Nothing special.” Nora agreed saying she and Nick were just an ordinary couple.

If the definition of ordinary includes working together in heat and sandstorms in an open-ended hangar on combat aircraft, leading troops in months of combat training, carrying an assault rifle to every meal and living in a 180-square-foot space together while their kids and home are 7000 miles and eight time zones away, then yes the Nordstroms are just like everybody else.

SDIESBAR: Our Amazon Adventure Tour

I sat down next to a soldier in the coffee shop next to the chapel. He was flipping through a National Geographic magazine looking at an article on the headwaters of the Amazon. I asked him if he had ever been there.

“No” he said, “But as soon as the deployment is over my wife and I are going on a two-week adventure vacation. It’s $2,000 per person. You sleep in jungle camps. It’s amazing.”

“Wow,” I said. “It’s great you and your wife will get to share an experience like that.”

“She’ll f#$kin’ hate it,” he said smiling. “But I’ve been going shopping with her for years, now she has to do what I want.”

“But wouldn’t it be more fun to go alone, or with a friend.”

“My wife is my best friend,” he said without a trace of irony. “She’s going.”

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