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Army couple learns to appreciate life after courtship during war

BAGHDAD—After surviving the threat of chemical weapons, land mines, artillery shells and suicide bombers, the idea of marriage isn't so frightening for Nancy Metz and James Rozzo.

"If we can get through this, we're not putting it on hold," Rozzo said Tuesday.

Metz, 32, and Rozzo, 35, both staff sergeants with the U.S. Army's 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, met in Kuwait during the first of two deployments there.

They've spent 11 of the past 14 months nurturing their courtship in southwest Asia. It is a romance that flowered in the barren desert, and not even war could tear it asunder.

But it almost didn't get off the ground. A bad movie line and an awkward moment nearly caused Rozzo to strike out with Metz.

In April 2002, Rozzo was part of a group of Fort Stewart, Ga.-based 123rd Signal Battalion soldiers who liked to razz new Army arrivals in Kuwait. Rozzo, of Girard, Ohio, approached Metz shortly after she arrived and just as she was lining up for formation.

Metz, with red hair and a Midwestern accent from Merril, Wis., struck the razzing group as reminiscent of a character from the movie "American Pie." They issued a dare to Rozzo.

Rozzo took up the dare. He walked up to Metz and asked her to say a line from the movie—"This one time at band camp "

Metz, who had seen the movie, played along. But her first impression of Rozzo was not a good one.

"I did it. It was like a big joke," Metz said. "As he walked away I thought, `what a jerk!' "

"If looks could kill," Rozzo recalled, "I got those when I was walking away."

Strike one.

The next time they saw each other, Metz and Rozzo were facing the Army's board review and eventual promotion to staff sergeant.

Metz, who has never been married, remembers Rozzo, who was married once before, as a "stick in the mud."

"He was so nervous—he didn't seem to have a sense of humor," she said. "He wasn't looking good as a prospect."

Strike two.

But Rozzo battled back. He began leaving little notes attached to his shift briefings for Metz, who worked the shift after him. A friendship began to form. Flirting followed.

Because they worked different hours, they were only able to see each other for breakfast and dinner at the mess hall. They abided by Army rules, prohibiting sexual intimacy and public displays of affection.

But Rozzo still found ways to romance his future fiance. He knew Metz liked Diet Coke, difficult to come by—particularly chilled—in Kuwait. Rozzo occasionally delivered one to her.

"A cold Diet Coke is better than a dozen roses any day," said Metz, taking her lunch Tuesday with Rozzo inside a tent, out of the sunny, 90-degree weather.

Rozzo was the first to leave Kuwait. Metz arrived back at Fort Stewart two weeks later. Rozzo had to work that day so he was in uniform when he picked her up. They had agreed on a "big kiss" at their reunion. But they were in uniform, and it was against Army rules.

Once again, Rozzo came through.

After greeting each other with " a handshake and a how-do-you-do," they walked outside to Rozzo's car. He pulled out a big piece of cardboard. On it he had glued Hershey's kisses to a huge set of painted lips.

Arriving back at her apartment, Metz discovered that Rozzo had decorated every room with balloons, flowers, cards, a teddy bear and homemade CDs, mostly of `80s love songs.

They found themselves back in Kuwait three months later. When war came, he was among the first troops into Iraq. She followed a couple of weeks later. They spent the war apart from each other.

Preparing for the return home, they recently reunited at an Army camp. War, they said, has steeled their commitment toward matrimony.

"A lot of the stresses, we're not going to worry about anymore," said Rozzo.

"It prepared us to take absolutely nothing for granted," Metz said. "If you decide you want to do something, do it now. We'll always remember that there was a day when we didn't know if we'd see each other again."

They plan to marry July 5.

"She likes the idea of fireworks the night before," Rozzo said with a smile.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+MARRIAGE

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