Troops marriages to Iraqis probed

Saturday, October 4, 2003

PACE, Fla. -- Two Florida National Guard soldiers who married Iraqi women against their commander's wishes are being investigated for allegedly defying an order, their families said.

The men, both Christians who converted to Islam so they could be married under Iraqi law, had expected to return to Florida this month, but a new Army policy that requires troops to remain in Iraq for 12 continuous months may keep them there until April.

In the meantime, Sgt. Sean Blackwell, 27, of Pace, and Cpl. Brett Dagen, 37, of Walnut Hill, want to send their wives to the United States because of threats from anti-American Iraqis.

Vickie McKee, Blackwell's mother, said Friday her daughter-in-law has asked that the women not be identified for that reason. Both women are physicians.

"She's being threatened over there on almost a daily basis," McKee said. "He just wants to know that she's safe."

McKee, who said the Army is trying to prevent the women from coming to the United States, has delivered letters from her son and his wife to the district office of U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller. Dan McFaul, a spokesman for Miller, said the congressman can do nothing until the women request visas.

Blackwell's wife, now working as an interpreter for an American firm in Baghdad, wrote that the Army has prevented him from contacting her since the double wedding on Aug. 17.

"Is this freedom in U.S.?" she wrote. "Where is the human right? Where is justice?"

McKee said the soldiers have been barred from using e-mail. For a time they also were prohibited from calling home, she said.

"It's an embarrassment to the Army," said Dagen's mother, Laverne Warren. Warren said her son also was not permitted to contact his Iraqi wife.

An Army spokesman at the Pentagon referred questions to officials in Iraq, who declined to give comments.

Lt. Col. Ron Tittle, spokesman for the Florida National Guard in St. Augustine, said he did not know whether disciplinary action had been taken or is contemplated, but that the soldiers' battalion commander, Lt. Col. Thad Hill, had said he was worried the marriages might distract his troops from their mission and compromise their safety.

In his letter to Miller, Blackwell said the Army Inspector General's office has told him he cannot be punished for getting married, but that he could be disciplined for disobeying an order.

Other soldiers, including his company commander, were supportive, but Hill and a sergeant major opposed the marriages, Blackwell wrote. He added that the sergeant major told him "Muslims and Christians just don't jive together."

An Iraqi judge married the couples while the soldiers were on a foot patrol, Blackwell wrote.

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