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December 22, 2014

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Officers finally get to think about honeymoon, after nine-month joint deployment 50 miles apart in Afghanistan

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Leila Navidi

Sam and Elaine Winstead photographed at home in Las Vegas on Thursday, September 5, 2013.

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Sam and Elaine Winstead photographed at home in Las Vegas on Thursday, September 5, 2013.

Every day for nine months Lt. Elaine Winstead tracked her husband’s missions sweeping Afghanistan roads for improvised explosive devices. Every day she was consumed with worry.

Winstead knew where her husband was supposed to be and when he was supposed to get there. She also knew where the enemies, with their AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, typically attacked the convoys. Any hitch in her husband’s mission brought with it a flood of concerns.

It was Elaine Winstead’s job as a transportation officer to know, but the knowledge was torture. While most spouses have no idea what their significant other does on military deployment, she and her husband, Lt. Sam Winstead, were living it together. Trouble was, they were stationed 50 miles apart in Afghanistan.

“I honestly hated it,” she said. “It made it worse because most spouses didn’t know what they were doing. I would know exactly what would happen. I know where the enemy hits the convoys. I always knew, and that made it horrible.”

Nine months later, on a September afternoon, Sam and Elaine Winstead sit inside the Las Vegas home of Sam’s parents, sun-soaked from hours at the pool and hiking at Red Rock Canyon. They returned home only a few days earlier to begin life together as a married couple.

The two met four years ago at West Point while training incoming cadets. Elaine loved Sam’s determination and integrity; Sam loved Elaine’s self-confidence and independence. They decided to get engaged one year later and married in October 2012.

Less than a month later, they deployed to the Kunar province in northeastern Afghanistan.

“On the one hand, it’s good knowing she’s close and I get to see her every month,” Sam said. “But on the other hand, she’s deployed in Afghanistan, so you worry about it every day. It was tough for both of us. Nothing too crazy, but it’s good and bad.”

Sam was stationed at Forward Operating Base Wright, a former Russian military resort. He worked as platoon leader tasked with clearing roadways of improvised explosive devices. Every day he led a convoy of trucks and mine rollers on sweeps, crawling up and down the roads with radars searching for piles of rocks that had been moved or other changes in the road.

They only found a few explosives, he said, but for the most part the job was meticulous and mind-numbing. Still, no matter what Sam was doing, he constantly worried about Elaine’s safety.

Fifty miles away, Elaine was stationed at Jalalabad Air Field, the main base in Kunar province. Her job was to develop routes to transport goods from point A to point B. She was also in charge of missions to explode expired ammunition, where she had to hold back mobs of Afghan men and children looking to collect the copper from the munitions to trade in for money.

The base offered several perks, but there were constant reminders it was in a battle zone. For every Friday night surf-and-turf meal, hair salon and coffee shop, there were bomb sirens, RPG explosions and bursts of AK-47s.

The shots were never close, but all it takes is one stray bullet.

“The biggest thing was with the war winding down, the biggest threat when we were there, was the vehicle-borne IEDs or the random mortar rounds. You always just had that in the back of the mind,” Sam said.

The two spoke nearly every day on Facebook, and they tried to call each other whenever they had time. They also saw each other once a month, when Sam’s platoon would visit Jalalabad Air Field.

Most visits, Sam had to work, but they tried to squeeze in time to grab coffee and watch pirated movies they could buy for a dollar from the locals. For Sam, those meetings were a rare treat, but for Elaine, they served as reminders they couldn’t be together.

Sometimes the visits made Elaine’s deployment more difficult.

“I tried not to get too attached because you’re going to go through it all over again. Get to see him, then he’s gone and you get a huge letdown.”

Still, they knew they were luckier than most soldiers on the base, whose wives or husbands were thousands of miles removed.

The experience has made their relationship stronger now that they’re back in the United States. Unlike most soldiers returning to their spouses, there are no secrets.

“We still have our growing pains like any married couple, but it’s made it better,” Elaine Winstead said. “I can talk to him about all my stuff, and he can talk to me. It’s kind of cool we have the pictures and I can go, ‘Oh yeah, I remember,’ or we would know the same people.”

They are able to start their life together at the same time. But first they have one more deployment before they report to Fort Campbell, Ky. — their belated honeymoon. This time, it’s their choice and they’re thinking something a little more tropical, like Malibu.

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