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The War Widow: Falling in love with a man bound for war

Relationship takes root in city shaped by the military life

By Elizabeth Leland
eleland@charlotteobserver.com

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So much of what Brian Woods took for granted seemed foreign to Elizabeth: The guns, the camouflage, even the way he rolled his socks into perfect little bundles before he put them away.

Elizabeth believed in world peace. Brian's career depended on war.

I'm dating a hippie! he teased her.

Despite Elizabeth's reservations about the military, despite her fears about falling in love with a combat soldier, she packed up her apartment three months after they met, gave up her life in Asheville and moved in May 2006 to the strangest place she ever lived: Fayetteville, home to the Fort Bragg army base and tens of thousands of soldiers.

Elizabeth felt out of place in the military town. In Asheville, people protested the war. In Fayetteville, they supported it. Brian's friends never tired of reliving their exploits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Because war, as hellish as it is, is exciting.

War would give Brian a chance to use his skills as a marksman and a medic.

He grew up poor in rural Missouri and spent part of his childhood in foster care. He proved himself in the military, first as a rifleman in the Marines, then four years in the Army. After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, he re-enlisted with the National Guard.

He had been training during the two years before he met Elizabeth to become a medic in the Green Berets. He studied Arabic. He learned to survive off the land, to perform surgery on the battlefield, to overcome hunger and sleep deprivation.

About 4,400 men try out each year; fewer than 800 make it.

Brian earned his Green Beret in May 2006. He was now among America's best, the Special Forces, experts in unconventional warfare. He had found his home, with a brotherhood of soldiers.

He was so close to his teammates that at first Elizabeth felt threatened. He explained why it had to be that way. They had to love each other enough, he said, to risk their lives for each other.

Committed to the war

Brian believed the U.S. needed as many troops as possible in Afghanistan, where the 9-11 suicide attacks were hatched.

The war had not gone as expected. President Bush ordered the first air strikes less than a month after 9-11, vowing to overthrow the Taliban government that supported Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network. By early December 2001, it looked as if allied forces had done it. But the Taliban regrouped.

If we pull out now, Elizabeth remembers Brian saying, everything we've accomplished will be forfeited.

Brian was committed to the mission, and Elizabeth was committed to Brian.

Off to Iraq

She still didn't like war, and tried not to let the military side of Brian dominate their time together. To her, he was more than a soldier. He was a nurturing father, a creative cook and photographer, one of the most generous and adventurous people she knew.

While he trained, she worked as a nanny. They filled their free time hiking, listening to music, making love.

He taught her to shoot a gun. She taught him ballroom dancing.

All too soon, their honeymoon ended. Though Brian had his Green Beret, his National Guard unit hadn't been called for duty. He was no longer on the military payroll. He needed a job.

Like other former and off-duty soldiers, he found work with a private contractor. Edinburgh Risk Security Management hired him in the summer of 2006 as a guard to protect Verizon Wireless employees in Iraq. He would live in Iraq two months, return home for a month, then be gone again for two.

It was a chance to make big money. Some off-duty soldiers earned as much as $200,000 a year working for contractors.

Now is not the time to worry, Brian told Elizabeth. He would be on a military base in the Green Zone, the protected part of Baghdad.

When I go away for my six-month deployment, he said, that's the time to worry.

A special love

Elizabeth felt adrift, as if her life were on hold, while she waited for Brian.

He assured her they had a future together, but Elizabeth wanted a commitment.

When Brian returned to the States in January 2007, he asked her to fly to Colorado to see his daughter, Lily. Finally, Elizabeth thought, he's going to propose.

Brian had a bigger surprise.

As they walked out of the Denver airport, a limousine driver waited with a sign:

"Marry Me?"

Brian had arranged it all by computer from Iraq: A romantic dinner. The master suite at an inn. An appointment at David's Bridal the next morning so Elizabeth could buy a dress. Then a wedding ceremony that afternoon at the inn.

"She makes me feel at peace with myself," Brian wrote Lisa, his best friend from high school. "I have this kind of passion with her that I have wanted for a long time but thought must be unattainable.... She shows the kind of love for me that I have never quite experienced."

A future together

Four months after the wedding, Elizabeth found out she was pregnant. It was May 2007, and they had bought a house in St. Louis, not far from where Brian grew up.

Elizabeth was studying for a masters in counseling. Brian was still in Iraq. He hoped one day to return to college.

They were preparing for a future together.

She went into labor on her due date, Jan. 29, 2008, and everything seemed fine until the moment of delivery.

Wednesday: Brian prepares to leave for Afghanistan.

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