Love in the Green Zone

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I met “T” in the Green Zone testosterone enclave in Baghdad, Iraq. I looked at him and knew right away I wasn’t interested. It wasn’t just something about his overall vibe, imposing size or visible tattoos. He was that guy. They were all over the Green Zone; big, muscular, flirty, tattooed, Under Armour shirts, Oakley sunglasses, and larger than life egos. They were ex military and Special Forces walking around with guns and attitudes. He was an ex-Navy SEAL. Not for me. No thanks.

“T” was interested in me and made that clear from the beginning. I wasn’t and made that clear back. My lack of enthusiasm and response to his advances was interpreted as an invitation, a challenge to a heavier pursuit. He would spend the next months doing just that.

As predictable as most of these stories go; I would be amused by the attention, grow accustomed to it, start to like it and depend on it. This didn’t necessarily mean I liked him in the beginning, but he was a constant, reliable source of compliments, attention and support in an otherwise turbulent and unpredictable place. And as I got to know him better, his sensitive, intelligent, vibrant, and complicated persona emerged replacing the initial limited impressions. A relationship in spite of itself grew out of what should have never been. If we weren’t in Iraq and in the Green Zone, our paths would have never crossed and I would have never entertained the thought of meeting, let alone ending up with someone like him.

He was nothing like me or the men I had known previously. I was a former investment banker from New York driven by work, constant need for self improvement and a spectrum of ethics which grew out of my Arabic, Muslim family background and strong ties. I was in Iraq trying to help save whatever bits of my native land that I could; it wasn’t only important, but personal. I was born in Iraq and left for the US when I was ten years old. My family had suffered a great tragedy there-my father who was a Nationalist and not a Baathist was targeted by Saddam for his opposing views and would lose his life for it. He is buried in Iraq.

I returned to Iraq because I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else-I was there for my country, my people, my mission. I had to be. Most of my relatives still lived in Iraq and this endeavor had a great deal to do with them.

“T” was an Ex Navy SEAL, a trained killer and a fighter who hid that part of him behind a sweet smile and a gentle demeanor. He was there also because he had to be; he had just left the Navy after ten years of service and this is what he could and wanted to do. His mission was much different than mine and I had no idea of his world, his background, or his capabilities.

To add to our differences, our lives in the US were at odds. He was from the West Coast, from a divorced family of an Indian father and a California mother and was a father himself. He was the quiet type, not comfortable sharing his feelings, inclined and trained to be secretive. I was from the East Coast, wore my heart on my sleeve and was prone to showing and talking about my feelings. How we found solace and comfort in each other is still inexplicable.

The man I would later fall in love would turn out to be nothing at all like the man who pursued me. He was idiosyncratic-tender in the morning; his more aggressive persona took over more as the day progressed. He was an exquisite, artful photographer but also a deadly accurate spear fisherman.

We came and went from the Green Zone and always found ourselves back together in it. And because we were in an environment that forced us to live in the terrifying present, we clung to each other. We were together in our new strange space where the real world waited outside.

It was common belief that relationships born in the Green Zone died in the Green Zone. They couldn’t withstand the realities outside this strange bubble. Our relationship could have died in the Green Zone, but it didn’t. Instead, it developed roots that gave way to love, dependency and understanding-it became the only thing that was real in another wise unreal time. We believed we beat the high odds.

A few years after meeting, we both left Iraq. We went to Afghanistan next. First him, then I followed. There, we were in a similar environment but with even more restrictions. We had become a good match by then; both working overseas and, taking our leave together. We had love, money, and lifestyle we shared and could understand.

We got married in Las Vegas between assignments because leave time was always short and precious. We had a small ceremony and perfect reception with our close family and friends present. When I watched him dance with the belly dancer I had hired for the entertainment and he smiled back at me, I felt I had found perfect happiness.

People marveled that we could get married and not live together, while we thought it was just what we were meant to do. We wouldn’t live together as man and wife till we moved to a place in California a year later.

After two years in Afghanistan, I decided to take time off from work and stay home in the US while he continued to go back and forth. With domesticity, distance surfaced between us.

I had experienced war and death from a closer distance but nowhere as close as “T” did. He wouldn’t talk about what he saw or did but as the years went on and as more of his compatriots and friends died in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and at home- a disappointment, harshness, and viciousness in him took hold and came to life. Maybe it was there all along, but now it was visible, loud and forceful. He saw and experienced the worst of what terrorists under the banner of Islam portrayed and he started to turn those devastations towards me as I often stood in favor of the moderate Muslims like myself and my family who loathe the fundamentalists who used the religion for their own deranged purposes. I objected to the generalizations and harsh distinctions he was suddenly fond of and we began to argue. He saw things differently or more simplistically; you were either with him in his views and hatreds or against him, and during some of these fights, he viewed me as being against him.

Our relationship became a battleground and a proxy for what was happening far away and in places where we had served and fought for. The fight had come home even though I thought we had left it behind.

This same pattern would also play out with his and my family and friends. Seemingly ordinary get togethers would go from being lively and entertaining to awkwardly silent and too serious for those accustomed to hearing and reading their news from the media and not from real life experiences. The truth, particularly his version of it wasn’t for barbeques and dinner parties.

As different as we were before we met, our shared experience had turned us into glaring mirror images of each other. We needed the same things but we were locked in a battle of wills. We were imprisoned in our private war Zone- on opposite sides.

Our fights were numerous, outrageous and consistent. We would go through periods of speaking, not speaking, then speaking again. Our bond remained but it was starting to shred in our tug-of-war.

He would never admit that he had PTSD or that his years overseas had affected him. Instead, he developed and clung to more extreme views and opinions shared by his fraternity of Navy SEALs and other Special Forces. After a while, our interactions went in circles; the same fights, the same complaints, and the same issues.

I recently returned to working overseas, this time for the Syrian cause but out of Turkey, which was a departure from compound living and security details. He blessed and supported my decision until he was injured in a work-related incident in Afghanistan and had to stay home in the US for knee reconstructive surgery and recovery.

This was his first time home in over a decade and the experience unleashed a hunger in him to get as much living in as possible while he was back. He wanted to share it with me, but if I wasn’t going to be there, he was going to do it without me. I had just accepted the new assignment and wasn’t able to leave it so soon, so the roles were reversed.

The dynamics of these war zone relationships, or as far as ours was concerned is that they worked as long as we were both living and working overseas. When one of us was home, the desire to live as a ‘normal couple’ would kick in and then resentments would take over at having to do it alone.

This last time, we couldn’t save it. We couldn’t disprove the truth-relationships that are born in chaos can only thrive in it. Outside the war zone, we could find no peace.

write by Myrna


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