Catlin Ang doesn’t dread the knock on the door and the visit by two soldiers in dress uniforms. If the unthinkable happens in Afghanistan, she’ll likely find out over the phone.
The 22-year-old Fife resident is the beneficiary of Spc. Nick Torres’ life insurance. She is carrying their child, due this month. She’s helping him make sure his bills back home are paid while he’s deployed with his Fort Lewis Stryker brigade.
But the two are engaged, not married. The Army recognizes legalities, not promises.
“It’s a little unfair, to be honest,” she said. “The only thing that’s different is a piece of paper. I’m pregnant with his child. I’m taking care of his business back home, but I don’t have any rights.”
Countless others – fiancées, boyfriends, girlfriends and domestic partners – are in a similar situation. They wake up in the middle of the night to have a Skype video chat with their significant other in Iraq or Afghanistan. They fret over the latest headline about a bombing in Kandahar or Baghdad. They trade e-mails with family members of the deployed and attend official functions.
Army regulations say next of kin must be a biological or legal relative, a Fort Lewis spokesman said. For a significant other, that means no grief counseling, no rights to his effects and no say in his burial. And if the service member is critically injured, the family can dictate how much or how little medical information can be released to a fiancee.
Neonatal medical benefits for someone in Ang’s position – carrying the child of a service member – also aren’t available, a Madigan Army Medical Center spokeswoman said.
Leah Delgado, a 22-year-old Tukwila resident, is engaged to another 5th Brigade soldier deployed to Afghanistan.
“Being engaged to someone in the military is not a walk in the park,” she said. “You cry, you worry and pray for their safe return. It does affect your daily life.”
She copes with the distance by writing letters and creating care packages for her fiancé, Spc. Rob Rivas. She also leans on her family for emotional support.
The military does not track data on soldiers who are engaged to be married, according to a May 25 article in The Washington Post. But a 2004 survey by a West Point researcher estimated that 25 percent of soldiers in Iraq had “significant others” who are not spouses, the Post reported.
Elected officials have noticed the legal limbo. The defense authorization bill that President Barack Obama signed last month orders the Pentagon to study the effects of designating non-family members to direct what happens to the remains of a fallen service member.
The bill requires Defense officials to report back to Congress in the next six months.
Ang met Torres, a sniper with the brigade’s 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, at a Lakewood bar in November 2008. He proposed in June, and the two plan on getting married when he returns from Afghanistan next summer.
They didn’t want to rush into a quickie marriage before the brigade left Fort Lewis in July.
“It wasn’t about the benefits,” Ang said. “We want to wait and have a nice, big wedding.”
They try to talk once a week, but Torres is often in the field on missions. The specter of danger can be haunting: One of her fiancé’s best friends was on patrol in the Arghandab River Valley of Kandahar province on Aug. 18 when he stepped on a bomb.
Spc. Troy Tom, who came over to Torres’ and Ang’s house for a barbecue just days before they deployed, became the brigade’s first death.
Torres called her that night but couldn’t say much. Ang knew he couldn’t discuss it openly over the phone, but she realized something bad had happened.
It helped her create an unofficial policy of receiving phone calls: If the number comes from Fort Lewis, she gets worried. If it’s from overseas, she can relax.
“I know we’re not married and how it works,” she said. “But it’s still nerve-wracking. I love him. And every time I watch the news and I see that someone was killed – and this is going to sound bad in a way – I hope it’s someone else.”
Bethany Brown, a 21-year-old Seattle resident, is engaged to Spc. Charles Henderson, an infantryman with 5th Brigade. The two have dated since September 2007 and talked often about marriage.
A month after he deployed, Henderson called Brown from Afghanistan and proposed. But Brown discovered weeks later exactly how unofficial their situation is: A roadside bomb detonated underneath Henderson’s Stryker.
He was unhurt but evacuated by helicopter as a precaution.
Henderson’s parents called Brown, a student at Seattle Pacific University, with the news. But, she added, this is how life will be until they get married.
“I wish it was another way,” she said, “but I can understand why it’s not. It’s the situation we’re in now, and getting married is really the only way to change it.”