A Modern Romance

Even now, after a transcontinental romance, two combat tours, and a tragic death, Natalie Martin still remembers exactly what she was wearing the day she met him. Mostly because she so wished, at the time, that she'd worn something, anything, else. It was a white tank top and a pair of Capri pants — pink-plaid Capri pants—the only clean clothes she could find. When she struck up a conversation with Staff Sergeant Patrick Bujold, she found herself hoping he wouldn't think she looked like a clown.

Martin, then an 18-year-old medic, was among the newest members of the Massachusetts Army National Guard’s 972 Military Police Company, which was holding its annual summer picnic that Sunday afternoon in July 2001 at Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford. She was a pretty tomboy, with long, wavy brown hair and dimples that lit up her cheeks when she smiled; boot camp had given her biceps as toned as Madonna’s, and an equal enthusiasm for showing them off. Bujold — boyish face, broad shoulders, solid bearing — resembled a cub scout, supersized. Six years her senior and nearly a full foot taller, he towered over Martin as they chatted under the bright sun. Eventually, they turned to the subject of cars, and she told him about the black 1962 Ford Falcon she drove. Bujold invited himself to take it for a spin. Ignoring her misgivings, Martin handed him the keys; it was the first time she had allowed somebody else behind the wheel.

A month later, Martin traveled from her home in Methuen to Camp Edwards on Cape Cod to complete a fitness test. When she learned that Bujold would be grading her, she felt her stomach somersault. “He was this Mr. Big Sergeant — he knew everybody — and I thought he was cute,” she says. “I didn't want to embarrass myself.” Her anxiety proved unfounded. The Guard requires female soldiers her age to perform 19 pushups to pass. It stops awarding points at 42. She topped out at 80 and scored equally well in sit-ups and the two-mile run.

Before the 972's next drill, scheduled for late September, terrorists launched their attacks on New York and Washington. Four days later, Bujold contacted his fellow soldiers to give them the unit's new orders: screening passengers at Logan Airport. When Martin returned his call from the dock of her father's lakeside home, she and Bujold stayed on the phone for half an hour, talking about their families, about the uncertainty they faced, about what might happen next.

Throughout his first six years in the service, Bujold, like the vast majority of the 9,500 men and women in the Massachusetts Air and Army National Guard, was a part-time warrior. While holding down a job as a Verizon technician, he spent one weekend with the 972 each month and another two weeks in intensive training every summer — just like the ads promised — plus extra hours preparing for his duties on his own. His missions involved nothing more hazardous than standing sentry at the Boston Marathon or delivering medications to snowbound senior citizens during blizzards. But since reporting to Logan on October 2, he was putting on his fatigues seven days a week, dealing with jittery fliers from 3:30 a.m. until 1 p.m., and crashing in the company's headquarters in the Melrose armory to avoid the late-night commute from his hometown of Tewksbury.

Martin was left out of the first wave deployed to Logan, and while she waited to be called in, she traded a few playful e-mails with Bujold. As a medic, Martin belonged to a separate chain of command, so nothing prevented Bujold from taking her on a date. Nothing in military protocol, anyway. “I wanted to hang out with him, and I was sick and tired of beating around the bush,” says Martin. She suggested they get together, and the two made plans for dinner at a seafood restaurant on the New Hampshire coast.

The evening did not go well. They argued about politics; Bujold, the more conservative of the two, later feared he'd been obnoxious while pressing his views.

A few weeks passed before they tried a second date. They went to a café in Newburyport, and this time he let her do more of the talking. They were still uncovering common denominators long after their coffees were cold.

Bujold had gone to Central Catholic High School in Lawrence; Martin attended Presentation of Mary Academy, an all-girls school in Methuen, where she'd played soccer and run cross-country, and where she once earned detention for refusing to remove a cowboy hat that was most certainly not part of the official uniform. Bujold's dad hadn't been part of his life while he was growing up; Martin's parents were separated. He enlisted in the Guard after a shiftless year at UMass Lowell. She signed on to stop a slide that began when she turned in her college financial aid applications late, progressed to sustained partying interrupted by part-time work refueling planes at the Lawrence airport, and bottomed out when she was pulled over by four police cruisers for doing 80 in a 30-mile-an-hour zone. Martin told her National Guard recruiter she wanted to start right away; he happily obliged. She called her mom in tears during her second week at basic training but refused to quit. Bujold liked her taste for adventure, liked that “she wasn't one of those fluffy girls who are afraid to get their fingers dirty.” The first time Bujold brought her along to ride four-wheelers with his friends, Martin easily kept up with the boys. When she crashed off the trail and tumbled from her vehicle, he was the rattled one.

Just before Thanksgiving, the commanding officer of the 972 asked Martin to start filling in at Logan. Bujold met her family after the holiday meal. By early December, she had moved into the medic room at the armory.

The military prohibits soldiers from displaying affection while in uniform, and Bujold and Martin adhered to that policy diligently. But in the cramped confines of the armory, they couldn't keep their growing relationship completely secret. One night, two older sergeants walked into the male bunk to find Martin sitting on the edge of Bujold's bed. “We're leaving!” they said as both executed a perfect about-face.

“Her feet were touching the floor, and there was nothing going on, but it felt like getting caught by your parents,” recalls Bujold. “A few days later, the officers ordered a room inspection, even though there were only four guys staying there.”

One of those men was Sergeant Glen McNulty, a transfer from the New Hampshire Guard who organized voluntary ruck marches, always kept his section of the barracks pristine, and was, on the whole, the personification of a quality the Army calls “high speed.” He and Bujold had become fast friends, and he eyed Martin's incursion into his turf warily.

Most mornings, Martin slipped into her uniform in her room, then padded over to the men's quarters still wearing her cherished fuzzy orange Halloween-patterned socks. After changing into her regulation hosiery and pulling on her boots, she'd toss the orange socks on the floor, where McNulty would find them when they returned from their graveyard shift in the afternoon. “Finally, I said, ‘If I see those things one more time!,'” says McNulty. “When she sprung onto the scene, I resented a lot of things.” Martin, stung, absorbed that sentiment and returned it in a stronger dose. “I hated him,” she says now.

The 972's tour at Logan ended in May of 2002. The soldiers took two weeks off before reconvening for their summer training. On June 17, they met again, this time at Fort Drum in upstate New York: The company was set to be deployed to a base in Uzbekistan that was handling much of the logistics for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

It would be the first combat mission for Bujold and Martin, and they found comfort in the knowledge that they'd be going together. “She really supported me, and she had become a big part of my life. We'd go over to her uncle's and pass out on the couch — that's how comfortable we were,” says Bujold. “At the time, I thought it was going to be the best thing.”

Members of the 972 expected to spend about two weeks at Fort Drum filling out paperwork and preparing their gear, but their departure date was repeatedly pushed back — the Army had more units called up than it had cargo planes to carry them abroad. During the delay, the company's commanding officers continued to put their charges through much-needed physical training. “At Logan, when we weren't working, there was a lot of standing around eating doughnuts and pretzels,” says Bujold.

“When we got to Drum, it was like going zero to 60 in 3.5 seconds.”

Near the end of one of the unit's regular jogs, Bujold stepped into a pothole, snapping a bone in his foot. Martin took him to the hospital, where a surgeon inserted a screw into the fracture. Bujold was recuperating on his cot, resting his cast-encased leg on a loop of medical tape strung from the top bunk, when he learned the 972 would be leaving for Uzbekistan on August 19.

Bujold's superiors reassigned him to the Massachusetts Army National Guard's 211 Military Police Battalion, which was staying behind at Fort Drum. After moving his things into a building set aside for the base's long-term residents, he asked a fellow sergeant to drive him over to Martin's barracks. “It was complete chaos. There was a lot of last-minute packing, trying to get everything ready to put it on the bird,” says Bujold. Martin had to hold back the urge to embrace her boyfriend. “I was trying to be tough for him,” she says. A female soldier came over and put a comforting arm around her, and she returned to her duties.

As Martin settled in at the base at Karshi/Khanabad, or K2, Bujold went to work at a desk job in his battalion's intelligence section. He volunteered to make coffee for the office, and while his superiors were getting their caffeine fixes, he took the opportunity to send e-mails to Martin. She wrote him almost every day and called as often as possible. After hobbling in vain once too often for the old-
fashioned handset in his room, Bujold bought a cordless phone and clipped it to his belt. Martin usually tried to reach him around 5:30 in the morning her time, which was 9:30 p.m. for him. At that hour, she knew she wouldn't have to wait in line. But Bujold had to sneak away from the Thursday pasta dinners he had with his friends — then weather a hail of ridicule once they caught on.

Martin kept him up to date on everything. She told him how otherworldly hot it was, and how a veteran medic instructed her to stop slathering sunblock on her soldiers, because this was war and soldiers needed to learn to take care of themselves. She told him how McNulty, who'd brought along his own hand tools, managed to rustle up enough plywood to build himself a private room, complete with TV and DVD player. How other soldiers used to come by just to see “the K2 condo,” and how she was one of the few he allowed inside. Her adversary had become an adopted older brother, and she'd sometimes tag along when he hiked out to the perimeter to give cigarettes to the Uzbek sentries.
Bujold, now healed, repeatedly begged the lieutenant colonel in charge of the battalion for permission to rejoin his old company. His requests were denied. Bujold wasn't sure when he and Martin would next have time to spend together, but he was certain he didn't want to take the chance of losing her when they did. A few days after Christmas, while home on holiday leave, he stuffed $500 into his wallet and headed to a jewelry store in Nashua. “The salesman,” he says, “told me you only do this once.” He put down a deposit, dove into his savings account, and came back for a big marquise-cut diamond ring.

As Bujold waited for Martin's return, he began to suspect their reunion might be short-lived. His duties now included procuring intelligence maps, and his superiors were asking for charts of the Persian Gulf region. Then the commanding officer ordered the battalion's trucks painted tan. “They wouldn't confirm anything, but that sort of gave it away,” says Bujold. He relayed these developments to Martin and told her about a rumor he'd heard: The 211 was going to ask soldiers from the 972 to volunteer for a possible mission in Iraq. One of the specialists needed was a medic. “I left it up to her,” says Bujold, “and she said she was going to do it.”

Martin flew back to Fort Drum on the last day of February. As she boarded the bus that would carry the soldiers to their barracks, a captain pulled her aside. “Martin, there's no room for you,” he said. “You'll have to ride with Bujold.” It was late. She was exhausted from the trip. Bujold left soon after dropping her off.

Bujold had reserved a hotel room in nearby Alexandria Bay for the following night, but Martin got assigned to an unloading detail and couldn't leave the base. They hung out in his quarters instead, munching on chips and watching TV. Fortified by a few drinks, he launched into the proposal he'd rehearsed in his head. But the words spun out in the wrong order. He presented Martin with the cigar box he'd been keeping the ring in and let it speak for him.

Military rules forced Martin to be out of Bujold's room by midnight, so they celebrated with a group of soldiers who were toasting their homecoming with a keg of beer. That weekend they went home to tell their parents, and Martin's family took them to karaoke night at a local Chinese restaurant. Bujold signed Martin up for a solo performance of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but before the evening was over, she exacted her revenge. When it was Bujold's turn to sing, Martin picked “Like a Virgin.”

Later that month, Martin bought herself an all-terrain vehicle and passed a blissful Saturday with Bujold racing through the woods. He left his cell phone behind, and when he checked his messages, he found an urgent voice mail. The 211 was leaving for the Middle East in three days. They were to return to Fort Drum immediately. The couple called McNulty to offer him a ride, but he chose to follow in his pickup instead. “You'll be playing with the radio and rubbing each other's hair. You two are too schmoopy,” he said.

The battalion traveled to Kuwait aboard a chartered 757. Bujold and Martin sat next to each other during the 20-hour flight. On April 1 — the day Special Forces rescued Private Jessica Lynch — the 211 arrived at Camp Wolf and experienced the first of many SCUD warnings. Before long, Bujold and Martin learned to recognize each other through their gas masks.

The next day, the company moved to Camp Virginia, where soldiers were crammed 70 to a tent. “There were only two doors, and three work schedules spread over 24 hours,” says Bujold. “People were coming and going all the time, and anybody's business was everybody's business.” And some of the juiciest business was about Bujold and Martin. When the two served guard duty together one night, rumors swirled that they'd used the cover of darkness to engage in unauthorized canoodling. Bujold was threatened with a formal disciplinary write-up until a supportive officer squashed the allegation.

The unit's ultimate destination was the sprawling air base outside Balad, a farming town located in the hotbed of Iraqi resistance north of Baghdad. As they prepared to roll out, the daily intelligence reports gave them a clear idea of what they'd face on the road. May 26: Two convoys attacked; two servicemen killed, four others hurt. May 27: Iraqi fighters fire on American vehicles with machine guns and grenade launchers, killing two and injuring nine. Two days later: Another ambush, another U.S. soldier dead.

“The most dangerous part of the mission was the trip up from Kuwait. The Iraqis had hidden mines in burlap bags and put them on the side of the highway and rigged 150 millimeter shells with trip wires so they'd blow up into the side of a truck,” says Bujold. Although the soldiers wore Kevlar vests, the Army had not yet issued the unit the ceramic plates that actually stop the bullets. Bujold pinched a small manhole cover from the base and scavenged a metal plate from the workout area, then tucked the steel under Martin's fatigues before she climbed into her Humvee.

The convoy made it to Balad without suffering casualties, and the 211 soon received its overdue body armor. The fear Bujold and Martin felt, however, was no less vivid. Those with loved ones at war learn the perils they face by watching the news; when you fight next to each other, the lessons are in 3-D. As Iraqis lobbed mortars at the airstrip near the hospital where Martin worked, she attended to the injured while wearing full protective gear; sweat pooled in the small of her back, soaked her clothes, dripped down her nose onto her patients. She treated a lot of shrapnel wounds, and a lot of those wounds were inflicted on the backsides of soldiers who'd turned, too late, to flee an explosion.
Each time Bujold left the base to go out on patrol, Martin stuffed bandages into his pocket. Whenever he could, he returned bearing gifts. He bought sunglasses and a portable CD player in Baghdad, and in the village of Ad Dujayl he picked up a pan so they could cook dinner on the camp stove he'd brought from Fort Drum. As the summer wore on, the two fell into a barbed-wired domesticity. Bujold built a makeshift patio out of loose stones and converted spent artillery rounds into tiki lamps; at night they'd change into civilian T-shirts and plop into their folding chairs like young professionals just back from a rough day at the office park. Martin's mom sent her care packages with essentials such as Life cereal — Bujold's favorite — and bridal magazines. She brought her fiancé breakfast in the morning and ogled wedding dresses with her girlfriends during her downtime.

The 211 was called back to the United States in early September, narrowly escaping a new Pentagon directive that will keep some of the 700 Massachusetts guardsmen serving overseas — among the 1,600 now on active duty — away from home for at least 12 months. Bujold and Martin, together for just less than two years, had lived out of rucksacks for nearly as long.

Over the days to come, Bujold would look forward to returning to his job at the phone company; Martin, to starting nursing school. They'd set a wedding date for next October, shop for their first home, and unwind at a party thrown in their honor by their families and friends. That night, Bujold's older brother, Justin Sasser, would be killed in a car crash by a hit-and-run driver. It would be up to Bujold to contact their relatives. When he couldn't bring himself to make any more calls, Martin would gently take over. He'd wonder how anybody could endure a loss like this alone, and she'd be reminded, sooner than she could've imagined, of what she'd told the local newspaper after they returned from the war: “If we can get through this,” she'd said, “we can get through anything.”
While Bujold and Martin dragged themselves across the tarmac at Fort Drum, someone stopped them and offered to take their picture. As the couple turned to face the camera, a group of soldiers urged them to squeeze closer. “C'mon, it's OK. Lean in!”

Bujold reached out an arm, and Martin placed her hand in his.