Editor’s Note: This is the second of four stories profiling soldiers and their families whose lives were defined by the Iraq war. The first was published Sunday.
Both Nathan and Raquel Dukellis served in Iraq; he returned to shut down U.S. bases
On this deployment -- his fourth -- he went back to the city that haunts the couple's marriage
They talk candidly about love's battle with separation, fear and doubt
Nathan says this deployment was like coming full circle -- with the war and with his marriage
The pictures on the walls at the Dukellis home tell the story of the couple’s time together – and apart.
There’s Nathan in his uniform with his comrades. There’s Raquel with her sisters. Nathan serving in Iraq. Raquel working.
They’re pictured together occasionally – at their wedding, of course, and in a recent photo, during a vacation in the mountains.
At first glance, Raquel and Nathan Dukellis seem an unlikely pair. She’s outgoing; he’s reserved. She has a large, extended family; he is an only child. Both sport tattoos on their arm – Herman Munster appears on hers; his arm features her name and a skull.
But it is their differences that drew them together, friends say. That and a passion for adventure.
What could be more adventurous than joining the Army and seeing the world? That’s how they met and married. And in March 2003, the couple found themselves sitting together in a tent in the Kuwaiti desert just hours before the invasion of Iraq.
Raquel would eventually get out of the Army. But Iraq has never stopped shaping their lives. Nathan’s most recent deployment – to turn out the lights at U.S. bases before the withdrawal of American troops – was his fourth.
The mission would mean yet another test for a marriage that’s been to the brink and back. Raquel filed for divorce in 2007 before the couple decided to give it another go. Married 11 years, they’ve been apart nearly half of it with training and deployments.
This new assignment felt uncomfortable to Raquel for another reason, too. The path through Iraq this time would take 33-year-old Nathan to Forward Operating Base Marez on the outskirts of Mosul near the borders of Turkey and Syria.
Mosul was where Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a gunbattle with Nathan’s unit at the time, the 101st Airborne. It was also the place that almost fell to insurgents after Iraqi police fled their posts, leaving American soldiers to hold the city.
It was this city, in a way, that haunted the Dukellis marriage. Not the place itself, of course, or its 1.8 million inhabitants. But rather what it signified: the time, the distance and the horrors of war.
That city, Raquel says, shaking her head.
Love in envelopes
Raquel, 30, joined the military shortly after graduating from high school. It was a perfect fit for the headstrong girl from Torrance, California, who never followed convention.
When friends were getting married and having babies, she was going through basic training. When other girls were shopping at the mall, she was using her time off at a base in Germany to travel Europe.
She had no way of knowing then that her military service – and her married life – would be defined by Iraq.
There was life before the invasion, when she was a soldier considering doing a career 20 years in the Army. And there was life after the invasion, a time defined by fear – for her life, for her husband’s and for their marriage.
On the eve of the March 20, 2003, invasion, at a remote base in Kuwait, Nathan went tent to tent, looking for Raquel.
They’d been assigned to different bases in Kuwait and hadn’t seen each other for weeks. But soon, Nathan would make an air assault into Iraq with the 101st Airborne and face Hussein’s fierce Fedayeen fighters near the revered Shiite holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq.
He had been relocated in the hours leading up to the invasion to the same base as Raquel. He made the rounds, asking everyone: Have you seen my wife? Do you know her?
One soldier ran into Raquel after talking to Nathan. He recognized her by the name tag on her uniform.
“I think somebody is looking for you,” he told her. “He has the same last name as you.”
Minutes later, the couple embraced.
There was so much to be said, and so little time. Nathan handed Raquel a letter. Then he was gone.
She followed him more than a week later, pushing across the Kuwait-Iraq border as part of a convoy carrying communications equipment for troops. She began writing letters to Nathan.
She didn’t know if or when he would receive them. But writing them drew him close to her; she wanted to tell him what she was thinking, what she was feeling.
She read and reread his letter to her. In it, he pledged his love and told her: If he didn’t make it back, she should go on and live a full life.
Months passed before they saw each other again. It was from a letter that Nathan learned his wife was only a few miles away at Marez, near Mosul.
He left his outpost, and they were reunited at the base.
It was also at Marez that Nathan, who was from Perris, California, said goodbye to Raquel five months after the invasion. Her tour was over; she was getting out of the Army. It was a decision they’d made long distance, in an exchange of letters.
Raquel returned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where she waited for word from her husband. Sometimes she refused to leave the house, worried she would miss his call. She followed the news stories about the fighting, saw the casualty reports. She knew firsthand that conditions were tough.
It was the early days of the war, when suicide bombings and roadside bombs – known as IEDs, or improvised explosive devices – were becoming the weapons of choice for insurgents.
The nightly news was filled with images of death and devastation. Raquel had nightmares about Nathan.
Then came the telephone call from Mosul early on a morning in September 2003.
Nathan’s patrol had hit an IED. The force of the explosion had blown in the front window of his vehicle, sending glass and debris into his face.
“I’m OK,” he told her. “It’s just some cuts.”
He wouldn’t tell her about the other horrors.
About seeing the body of his friend, Staff Sgt. Morgan D. Kennon of Memphis, Tennessee. He was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade while guarding a bank in downtown Mosul.
Or that another friend, Spec. Alex Leonard, had lost his legs.