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A Life Lost, a Plan Derailed, A Fiancee Left in Limbo

In the Army, There's No Form to Verify Love

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009

So much now depends on the ring. For Kyle Harper, there are few other signs remaining of the life she should have had with her fiance. For the longest time, she kept the diamond engagement ring on her finger. It proved what the world at times refused to acknowledge: that she had mattered to Sgt. Michael Hullender.

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When Michael was killed on a dusty road in Iraq, Kyle, now 27, got her first inkling from a roommate who told her Michael's parents had called. There was no knock on the door, no official phone call or notification. Later, when she tried to obtain the things he left behind -- an old T-shirt, his dog tags, little mementos from his quarters -- she found herself floating in legal limbo, with no rights to his effects or his name.

Even in a bureaucracy as large as the Army, there is no form you can fill out to verify love, to explain the messy details of life; only the marriage certificate counts. As a result, the military had to treat Kyle the way it does all fiancees -- as though she had no relationship with Michael. All the Army could offer were condolences. There would be no grief counseling, no casualty pay, no say in his burial.

Those rights fell to his next of kin. And even there, after his death, a few in his family sided with the military. After all, they pointed out, they had known Michael his whole life. She had met him only in his last years. Rifts formed. Words were exchanged.

In the end, all she had left was the ring he gave her and what it represented -- his promise and his love. Even now, two years after his death at 29, she wonders what to do with it. Sitting on her couch in Northeast Washington, she holds up the ring to a stranger. Sunlight catches the diamond, and she poses this question: What do you do with a promise that can never be fulfilled?

* * *

The military does not keep statistics on engaged soldiers or their partners. The closest thing is an obscure 2004 survey by a West Point researcher estimating that 25 percent of soldiers in Iraq have "significant others" who are not spouses. The stories behind those numbers vary along with each couple's reasons for not tying the knot. Some simply aren't ready; others don't believe in the institution.

For Michael and Kyle, it was a question of marrying for the right reasons.

They met in Alaska in 2006, while she was waiting tables at a ski bar. She had graduated from Georgetown University, where she was a women's studies major. He was an Army medic who had finished a tour in Afghanistan as a Ranger and was stationed at Fort Richardson.

What attracted her was how he seemed to walk right through the walls she usually put up against the world. By their third date, he was telling her, "You pretend you don't need anyone, but everyone needs someone to take care of them."

For months, they spent almost every weekend together and talked daily by phone. But a deadline loomed over their relationship. Seven months after they met, Michael was deployed to Iraq. A few weeks before he left, while driving her home, he turned to her and said quietly, "What would you do if I asked you to marry me?"

"I'd say no," she blurted out. They would be doing it for the wrong reasons, she insisted. Out of fear something would happen to him in Iraq. Out of fear they would grow apart while he was gone.

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