Name: Lance Cpl. Erica Gonzales
Job: Bulk fuel specialist
Name: Petty Officer 2nd Class Alejandro Gonzales
Job: Construction worker
CAMP SOLOMON ISLANDS, Kuwait—"Hey, I need to talk to you," a stern sergeant says to Lance Cpl. Erica Gonzales.
"Oh, man, what did I do?" she wonders.
As she walks across the gravel, she doesn't notice a man in Navy fatigues. But he spots her. Boots first, tiny size 4's.
When he approaches, for a split second, she doesn't recognize him.
"Erica," he says.
She tries to be strong, a tough Marine. Then she starts to cry. He kisses her on the cheek. Can a Marine hug a Navy seaman? Even if they are married?
For more than two months, Erica and Alejandro Gonzales have been apart. She's in the Marines. He's in the Navy. They're both in Kuwait, but they hadn't been able to find each other. A few days before the expected start of war, they do.
It happens because Alejandro, a construction worker at Camp Fox south of here, came north for training. He asked an officer if he knew the location of the Marines' 6th Engineer Support Battalion. "Right there," the officer said, pointing across the road.
After one boss talked to another boss, Alejandro was allowed to surprise his wife, with a two-hour visit.
At first, uncertain of the rules, the young couple sit and don't touch. Alejandro looks around the desert camp and says it looks a lot like his.
"That's our chow hall," Erica says, pointing at a large white tent.
"We have a galley tent, just like it," he says.
"Do you have phones?" she asks.
"No. Do you?"
She shakes her head.
"I mailed you a letter last night," she says.
"I'll probably get it by the time the war is over," he says.
Her pants are baggy. She has lost about 7 or 8 pounds, and her belt is 2 inches too big. But she hasn't gotten sick. "The first week we were here, there were 110 cases of strep throat," she says.
After 20 minutes, they lock eyes and he puts his left hand on her right knee.
She describes her desert home some more. Her support battalion is preparing to transport and store bulk fuel and water when the fighting begins.
"Every night at 8 o'clock, they show a movie in the chow hall," she says.
"What?" Alejandro says. "We barely got a TV. They have American DVDs and an Arabic DVD player and the coding is different, so we can't use it."
They sit silently.
"I don't know what else to say," Erica finally says.
But then they do, more comparing of their separate lives in Kuwait.
"I got some more medication yesterday," he says, opening up a green bag at his side.
"They gave us Valium yesterday," she says. "If you start to convulse."
"The big shot?" he asks.
"Yeah," she says. "We've had to put on our gas mask 16 times since I've been here."
She points across camp. "I built one of these bunkers."
"I dug one by hand," he replies.
As time runs out, they stand to walk. She wants to hold his hand, but hesitates. She assumes it's against regulations. He subtly grabs her hand, but she slides away and holds his canteen.
Erica and Alejandro arrive at the spot where he is going to be picked up, but they are early. So they show each other their knives. He just got a new one. She points at her bayonet. "I used this knife opening a box," she says. "I did better with my fingers."
Passing trucks kick up dust.
"I dropped my toothbrush right in the dirt, and I had to throw it away," Alejandro says.
"Oh, do you have another?"
"Yeah, I got two extra. Do you have enough?"
"I only have one. I need a toothbrush case. I'm using a plastic bag, but it's getting nasty."
"I'll try to get one to you."
They sit again.
"Yesterday, we were learning how to handle enemy prisoners of war," she says. "It was fun, because I didn't think I could do something like that."
"We learned how to hold their thumb and middle finger and squeeze," he says, then demonstrates on her. "And it's locked and hurts real bad, so they'll do anything you want them to do."
His ride arrives and he climbs into the back seat.
As the white SUV drives away, Erica waves at her husband. She can't stop smiling.
A few days later, a sergeant approaches her. "Do you have a husband, Alejandro, who is a seabee?" he asks.
A horrible feeling overcomes her. She thinks there's been an accident. She thinks he's dead. Is this how they tell you? Tears start to run.
"I think this is yours," he says, and hands her a toothbrush case.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ILLUSTRATIONS (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): faces+reunion