Love at first text

Lenny Neslin

Thirty-five hours without sleeping a wink. Six flight cancellations induced tears spilled over phone calls home. Kristen Swartz was just trying to visit her boyfriend, whom she had never actually met in person. She texted him from the back of the plane when she finally landed at Nashville International Airport in Tennessee. Elated to meet her – at the time – Internet boyfriend, but in desperate need of a bathroom visit, Swartz was embarrassed to see her man waiting right when she exited the tunnel.

TSA allowed him to pass through security without a ticket because he is a member of the U.S. Army. He’s stationed in Baghdad.

“It’s crazy to say it, but I felt like I had known him for years,” Swartz said of seeing SPC Gray, Philip serving as a Combat Medic with the 5th squadron 4th Cavalry, 2nd HBCT, 1st ID out of Fort Riley, Kan., for the first time in person. Swartz said they’ve been officially together since Dec. 13, 2010, even though they only had spoken over Skype and other online communication services, thanks to her best friend from high school, Nikki Stall, who introduced them.

Kristen Swartz made a choice to date someone serving in the military overseas. She knew it wouldn't be easy coping with the 8,000-mile separation, but she said she supports her boyfriend 100 percent. (Photo by Lenny Neslin)

Swartz, 21, spent a week in Clarksville, Tenn., immersing herself with Gray, 24, and his family. Now nearing their fifth month as a couple, those seven days in late January and early February remain the only physical time they’ve spent together. Despite this, Swartz said she fully supports him serving in the military and the idea of marriage “has been discussed.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt more confident about anything in my life than I do about how strong our relationship is, and it’s going in a good direction,” said Swartz, who is less than two weeks away from graduating Quinnipiac with a bachelor’s degree in media production.

Swartz served as the general manager of Quinnipiac’s television station, Q30, this year, and is a member of the student veterans organization, glee club, and Invisible Children.

Through Quinnipiac’s budding veterans organization, Swartz met senior Meghan Cousins and junior Monica Miramontes, who have boyfriends in Baghdad, too.

“The connection that we have runs deeper than just our boyfriends who are in Iraq,” Swartz said. “They are just genuine good people who I enjoy being around, and this whole experience has brought us a lot closer together.”

Leading up to Swartz’s week in Tennessee, Gray’s second (and final) week of rest and recuperation, Gray and Swartz knew they had to make their seven days together last at least seven months. Gray made a lasting impression on Swartz by taking her to the Opryland Hotel, which had water and light shows visible from their room’s balcony.

“The trip affected me a lot more than I thought it would because it solidified everything I thought I would feel,” Swartz said.

She burst into tears of joy Sunday night after hearing of Osama bin Laden’s death. At the time Gray was sound asleep, as Baghdad is seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. The news prompted her to leave a message on Gray’s Facebook wall: “wake uppppp!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“I didn’t know how else to react,” Swartz said. “It felt like a huge weight was just lifted off not only my shoulders, but the shoulders of everyone who has someone overseas or any American in general who’s been affected by this war or Sept. 11.”

While Americans paraded in the streets at Ground Zero and in front of the White House, military members like Gray were dubious of the reports.


“I asked her, ‘Do we have PID (positive identification)?’ We were skeptical at first,” said Gray, who now is convinced by the reports that bin Laden is in fact dead. “For us, this just means we got to be on our guard 10 times more. It’s a great achievement for the nation … but we all know there is going to be a lot of antiterrorist action right now.”

Gray was born in Heerlen, Netherlands, and studied pre-medicine at Bryan College and Austin Peay University. His father served 22 years in the army as military intelligence and communication, and this military background resulted in his family moving eight times before his first deployment.

“This is pretty much everything I’ve ever known,” Gray said. “It was something I wanted to stay away from as a kid because I didn’t like moving around every three years. But as I got older, I figured it was one of the right things for me to do. It was my time to serve.”

Swartz said bin Laden’s death made her feel relieved because the chances of Gray getting stationed in Afghanistan are likely diminished. “The idea of him going over [to Afghanistan] makes me sick to my stomach.”

Gray’s first deployment ends Oct. 15 at the latest, and the army’s policy is to allow 18 months of dwell time before a second deployment.

“We’re just like any other normal couple; we argue about things, we talk about things, but the only difference is that he is 8,000 miles away,” Swartz said.

“I appreciate things a lot more now,” Swartz said. “I see a lot of people who take their relationships for granted, or take the fact that their boyfriend is so close to them for granted.”

Swartz hasn’t seen Gray in person since she left Tennessee on Feb. 3, but said she plans to be in Fort Riley, Kan., for when he returns in September or October.

In the meantime, she sends care packages every few weeks with Gray’s favorite foods and they exchange humorous cards in the mail.