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On Memorial Day, take a moment to reflect on war's hidden casualties: widows

Lena Ahearn is 34 and lives in Ballston with her 4-year-old daughter Kadi, short for Khadijah.
Lena Ahearn is 34 and lives in Ballston with her 4-year-old daughter Kadi, short for Khadijah. (Courtesy of Lena Ahear )
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By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010

For weeks, with the tumult of war-torn Baghdad swirling around them, they met on a bench every evening.

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They sat and talked, laughed and flirted. He touched her hand once.

"Oh, no," she gasped as she quickly pulled her tiny hand away from his big one. Her brother was nearby, chaperoning.

But she was captivated by Maj. James Ahearn's startling blue eyes and fair skin. She thinks of those eyes every day as she's chatting with clients at the Shirlington beauty salon where she does hair.

Lena Ahearn is 34 and lives in Ballston with her 4-year-old daughter, Kadi, short for Khadijah. She is one of the more unlikely war widows gathering in Washington this weekend for a National Memorial Day Concert -- an Iraqi woman still grieving three years after her American husband was killed by a roadside bomb while on a patrol in her home town, Baghdad.

And while much of America will be celebrating Memorial Day weekend with cookouts or trips to the beach, Lena is going to finish her shift, sweep up the wet curls of hair on the floor at the salon and take her daughter to Arlington National Cemetery, where the love of her life is buried in Section 60.

The Ahearns met in Baghdad in 2003, where he was the patrol captain in charge of Lena's neighborhood.

When he paid a visit to her family's home, "I was the only one in the house who spoke English, so my mom woke me up." Lena told me in her heavilyaccented English. "So I came out and I looked at him. And I was like: 'Those blue eyes! Oh, man, he has beautiful white teeth! And he has the strong officer face.' He told me he finishes his duty at 8 at night. And he came back. We sat on the bench. And we talked until 11 at night. He did that every night for a month."

They fell in love during those many nights on the bench. Ahearn brought food and water to her family, then talked for hours with Lena, who was 27 at the time and had a degree in psychology.

Ahearn, then 39, returned to the United States, divorced his American wife and returned to Lena. He converted to Islam so he could marry her. They wed in Jordan and eventually moved to Fort Bragg, N.C. Before settling down, they had a second wedding in Las Vegas that his family attended. Lena dyed her hair blonde and wore a va-va-voom white wedding dress.

They were an unusual couple. It wasn't uncommon for soldiers to return to the United States with English or German wives after World War II or Vietnamese wives after the Vietnam War. But in this conflict, our worlds, our culture and our people seem very far apart.

Except on that bench near Lena's house.


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