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For Gastonia valentines, love forged on Afghan battlefield

As a couple, they spent their first Valentine’s Day in 2013 on the battlefield.

Actually, it was two days later. Samantha Suttner and Bessemer City-raised Benjamin Christopher, both Marine sergeants, had met at Camp Lejeune three years earlier. Their affection for each other hadn’t been instant, but now – on a second deployment to Afghanistan – they hid their blossoming relationship from their superiors but not from each other.

Both were on combat missions as Feb. 14 – Valentine’s Day – that year came and went. Christopher, 24, returned to Camp Leatherneck in dangerous Helmand Province on the 15th, hoping to find Suttner, 25, waiting.

But she didn’t return until the 16th – upset they had missed their celebration.

Worn out, she walked into the room she shared with four other Marines and found on her bunk bed: a silk red rose, heart-shaped candy suckers, a teddy bear and a giant “I Love You” card.

She cried.

“I was so mad I missed Valentine’s Day with him,” she said. “That was going to be our first. I thought about him every second that day.”

The valentine gestures got the intended responses that Christopher had hoped for.

“It was a war zone and I wanted to do anything to make her feel better,” he said. “All her friends made a big mess over it.”

Two years later, they are out of the Marines, married with two children (one from Christopher’s first marriage) and recently bought a house in Gastonia that was renovated by Purple Heart Homes, the Statesville-based nonprofit that repairs and builds homes for wounded or disabled veterans.

The Christophers will celebrate Valentine’s Day on Monday – and forever more each Feb. 16.

“That is just a special day to us, more special than Feb. 14. I still have the things he got me in Afghanistan,” Samantha said. “We’re in school and we’ll come home and play with the kids (Melanie, 4, and son Brently, 6 months) and go out to dinner as a family.

“Doesn’t matter what we do, just so we’re together.”

‘Everything went silent’

She grew up in Milwaukee, he in North Carolina. He started boot camp in June 2010, she in October that year.

When they were assigned to the same platoon at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, they were more competitive with each other than smitten.

By then, Benjamin (his Marine buddies call him Chris) was already in a struggling marriage and soon he was confiding in her and asking for her womanly advice.

In January 2011, their unit, a transportation support company, was deployed to Afghanistan. It lasted eight months and when they returned to Lejeune, Benjamin legally separated from his first wife and his relationship with Samantha took off. “Because he was still legally separated, in the Marine Corps you’re still married,” she said. “We had to hide our love for each other.”

In January 2013, they redeployed to Afghanistan for another eight months. It would be more eventful than the first.

Benjamin, leading a security team, was a passenger in a truck that had to leave a convoy to help another vehicle that had broken down. It hit an improvised explosive device (IED), blowing a tire and leaving Benjamin dazed by the explosion.

At the base, they hid the incident from Samantha.

A month later on April 21, Samantha’s truck was last in a convoy when it “was rocked pretty hard” by an IED. Samantha was thrown to the top of the truck. “It was a blackout experience, everything went silent,” Samantha said. “When I regained consciousness, everybody was screaming. My first reaction was to calm everybody down.”

She had a concussion and was flown to the base hospital for observation. She was released after two days but returned for therapy.

Then on May 5, Benjamin was driving a truck on another mission when it had to leave the convoy again and got hit. When he awoke, his legs were pinned under the gas pedal and the tires were spinning. He suffered a bad concussion and badly bruised ribs. He and his gunner were flown to the base hospital.

Samantha brought them pizza.

“I fought back tears,” Benjamin said. “It made me feel good to know even there I had this support system. She was there with me every step of the way.”

“At that point, I didn’t know if we were going to make it home,” Samantha said. They started talking about getting of the Marines.

‘Stronger as a couple’

They returned to Camp Lejeune two months later, and married on Aug. 26, 2013.

Now they’re making their way together. She wants to be a certified nursing assistant; he’s thinking about physical therapy.

They are grateful to Purple Heart Homes for the work on their house – “but we weren’t expecting anything,” Benjamin said.

They only expect to live their lives together.

“We have so much love for each other and an understanding of what the other has gone through,” Samantha said. “From now on, every time we come to a bump, we know nothing will stand in our way. It just makes us stronger as a couple.”

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