The two brides of Baghdad

The Sydney Morning Herald

October 28, 2003

Two American GIs are under friendly fire for marrying Iraqis, Gerard Wright reports.

Like every other story out of Iraq, the tale of the brides of Baghdad is complicated, with no certain ending. The story includes newlyweds who have not laid eyes on each other since the ceremony that joined them for life, on August 17, a mother who hasn't heard from her son in nearly four weeks, and a soldier, newly converted to Islam, whose tenuous grasp of civilian life could be measured in weeks.

The brides have no names. They are Iraqi women in their mid-20s, well educated, and in at least one case, well-travelled. Their decisions to marry US soldiers, Sergeant Sean Blackwell, 27, and Corporal Brett Dagen, 37, have not been well received in Baghdad or the wider Arab world.

Although they have tried to keep their identities secret, their names and faces have been broadcast on Arab TV and the internet, says Blackwell's mother, Vickie McKee. "She [Blackwell's wife] is in hiding, from all the threats she's been getting," McKee said from her home in Pensacola, Florida.

Sean Blackwell was on guard outside the offices of the Iraq Ministry of Health when he met the 25 year-old woman for the first time, in April. The Saddam regime had fallen and the woman, a doctor educated in Paris, was looking for work as a translator. She found work elsewhere in the city, but the initial mutual attraction remained strong. The woman also met other troops, including Dagen, whom she introduced to a friend, aged 26.

Blackwell and Dagen are members of the Florida National Guard, citizen soldiers, rather than enlisted men. But the same codes of military discipline apply.

The women would visit Blackwell and Dagen at the gates of their base in Baghdad, and the romance acquired a certain degree of common knowledge. One of Blackwell's immediate superiors wrote a letter to the US Consulate on his behalf, requesting a visa for the woman. Later, the woman's family would visit Blackwell at his post. In early August, Blackwell and Dagen formally converted to Islam.

This religious, romantic and cultural crossover caused consternation further up the military chain of command, which regarded it as a security problem. "We are accomplishing a mission on the street and protecting our forces," said Captain Jack McClellan, the Baghdad-based spokesman for the Florida National Guard. "We cannot develop relationships with the locals unless they are mission-related."

So when Blackwell and Dagen left their base on foot patrol on the baking hot morning of August 17, clutching M-16 rifles, and encased in bullet-proof vests, it had to appear like service as usual.

The families of the brides had met, as arranged, at a street corner. There, they were met by an Iraqi intermediary, who took them to a place along the route of their future husbands' patrol. After the groups met, they were ushered into the courtyard of a restaurant where an Iraqi judge married them under Muslim law, a process that took 30 minutes. Rings were exchanged and documents were signed. The couples separated and the patrol resumed.

Blackwell had been married before, when he was 19, and had two daughters before it ended. "He was really hurt from that," McKee said. "It took him a long time to get over it."

Then she began hearing about the woman in Baghdad. "I asked him the questions that anyone who is a parent would ask: 'Are you sure she's not looking for a free ride?' I was concerned for my son. He said, 'No, mum. She's got morals and values and things I've been looking for in a woman'."

With the apparent danger facing her new daughter-in-law, McKee has hired an immigration lawyer, Richard Alvoid, to try to expedite the process of getting her a visa. Blackwell and Dagen, meanwhile, are incommunicado. In a letter he wrote to his congressman, Blackwell said he may be charged with disobeying an order.

That the military hammer could come down so hard should have been no surprise to Blackwell. He had been a soldier for five years, and had left the army after returning home from Korea last November. He joined the National Guard immediately for the subsidy the service would provide for his intended college education.

Under the revised rules of service caused by the hostilities in Iraq, the tour of duty for Blackwell's unit has been extended to a year. This means he and Dagen will not be home until next March.

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