BAGHDAD — You won't find Iraq listed as a Top 10 honeymoon destination in the glossy pages of any bridal magazine, but there's nowhere else newlyweds Miguel and Amanda Perez would rather be right now.
"I like to think about it like it's the military sending us on a vacation," joked Miguel, a 24-year-old sergeant from Houston. "Sand and palm trees everywhere — a nine-month honeymoon."
The Perezes are one of six married couples who deployed to Iraq with the 72nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, a Texas Army National Guard unit headquartered in Houston. About 3,000 soldiers from the brigade are stationed across Iraq, assigned to missions such as Green Zone security, detainee operations, force protection and convoys.
Both Perezes served in Iraq before. Miguel deployed from 2006-07. Amanda deployed from 2008-09.
"We know what the military expects of us, and we know that the military has to come first," said Amanda, a 23-year-old specialist from Beaumont, Texas.
With an increasing number of women serving on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan — about 10 percent of the 72nd's soldiers are female — married life has become a reality of military deployments.
Amanda and Miguel met in the Guard and married at a courthouse on Oct. 2, during a break in training. Since then, they've lived in group tents or barracks separated by gender, only seeing each other for a few hours each day.
Their first home together is a 130-square-foot room in a containerized housing unit, or CHU, at Camp Prosperity in Baghdad's Green Zone.
"Free of rent," Amanda pointed out.
The Perezes pushed the standard-issue twin beds together and hung a Texas flag in the doorway for some extra privacy. Miguel bought Amanda a full-length mirror so she wouldn't have to do her makeup sitting on the floor. He plans to use the wood shop at Camp Prosperity to build a table for their new flat-screen TV.
The Perezes have to walk outside to use shared latrines and showers. They eat at the chow hall and send their uniforms to a contractor-run laundry service — amenities that cut down on the potential for fights over whose turn it is to wash the dishes or fold the clothes. But there are plenty of other stresses.
As soon as they started dating, Amanda and Miguel had to ask the military's blessing. They went through counseling with the brigade's chaplain and got briefings from the chain of command.
"They said we had to keep it professional when it came to work and if there's any problems they're going to separate us," Amanda said.
"We can't show affection in front of everybody because we're in uniform, so we really have to watch what we say to each other, and we can't touch each other," Miguel said.
The rule against public affection — no holding hands, no terms of endearment — is the hardest part about deploying with your spouse, said Spc. Andrew Prater, 22, of Temple, Texas. He serves in the same company as his wife, Spc. Crystal Prater, 24, of Corpus Christi, Texas, at Camp Cropper in Baghdad.
"All these guys are away from their wives, and they can't touch," Andrew said. "Imagine being 2 feet away from her and not being able to touch."
This is Andrew's second tour and his wife's first. They met in February at a weekend drill for the Guard. Another soldier was talking to Crystal about his fiancee, and Andrew interrupted. "He said, 'Get rid of her, she's gonna cheat on you,'" Crystal recalled. "And I said, 'Wow, you're just a box full of sunshine.'"
Andrew is blunt: "I have trust issues," he said. "Seven or eight guys in my unit last time got divorced when we all got back home."
But when Andrew met Crystal, everything changed. She shared his goofy sense of humor and understood the demands of military service.
They had a courthouse wedding in July.
"Our plan when we get home is to go to school and start saving for a house," Andrew said.
On Valentine's Day, Capt. Jennifer Zavaglia, 28, and her husband, Capt. Matthew Zavaglia, 29, of Leander, Texas will mark their sixth wedding anniversary in Iraq.
The couple likely will not be able to celebrate together, however. Jennifer is stationed at Camp Prosperity in the Green Zone, while Matthew is at Camp Cropper, near the airport.
The situation is nothing new for the Zavaglias, who met in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. This is Matthew's third combat tour since their wedding in 2004.
"Probably half of our marriage has been apart," Jennifer said.
She volunteered for this tour so she could get on the same deployment schedule as her husband.
"We never went into it with the expectation that we would be together in the same place," she said. "It just makes it easier because you don't know year to year who's going to get called up. This way we would deploy together, have our R & R together, and go home together."