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Love story: United by West Point, divided by the Hindu Kush

ORGUN-E, Afghanistan — A 21-minute helicopter flight apart in the dusty mountains of eastern Afghanistan wasn't what Troy Yoho and Kelsey Tardieau had in mind when the couple arranged to be deployed together in Task Force Yukon (the 4th Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division) from their base in Alaska.

1st Lt. Tardieau, an intelligence officer who works with the Afghan Border Police, and 1st Lt. Yoho, a scout platoon leader — both 2007 West Point graduates — hadn't even expected to end up together in Alaska, where they'll be married in the summer of 2010.

They were dating at graduation, but neither of them expected it to last. Yoho, 25, of Tomball, Texas, thought he was going to Fort Bragg, N.C., and Tardieau, 24, from Grants Pass, Ore., to Fort Lewis in Washington. But fate interceded. Their first picks were taken, and the Army assigned them both, by mere chance, to Fort Richardson in Alaska. The romance was meant to be, and they sealed it with a kiss in West Point's famous "Firsty Pub."

Now, the two can't stand to be apart: They bought a house in Alaska even before their marriage. However, they'll have to get acclimated to the Afghan mountains that now stand between them, because Army regulations prohibit them from hopping on the 21-minute chopper flight — even for a romantic weekend.

There's one bright spot: Task Force Yukon commanders have agreed to allow the two lovebirds to take their leave together in about six months.

In the meantime, they discuss the challenges of their work on secure military phone lines that Uncle Sam can monitor, and flirt openly on the local Afghan cell phone network, on which anybody — including the Taliban — can eavesdrop.

"I tell her just about everything there is going on down here in Paktika and she tells me everything going on up there in Paktia," said Yoho, noting that the provinces they live in are separated by a "K," the first letter of his future wife's name.

Yoho and Tardieau are involved in the U.S. military's extensive counterinsurgency efforts in a nation still wracked by war and instability. Lt. Yoho is often out in the field, moving with his platoon from one mountain valley to another.

"The key is to try to bind small villages back to the district center," he said. "The British drew the line, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border divides a lot of the tribes."

While not dodging ambushes set by the Taliban and al Qaida, Yoho, who studied Islamic as well as American law at West Point, is trying to use his legal background to help the Afghans establish their own government.

"Ninety percent of the insurgents don't want to fight the greatest army in the world," he said. "They want to provide for their families, but if they can't they will sling bullets at us."

"Working here," he adds, "you often need to set aside what you think is right or wrong."

The motto of Yoho's 509 Geronimo Battalion is "It's the People, Stupid," meaning that the war can and will be won only by concentrating on helping the Afghan people and their security forces meet the challenges of good governance and stability.

"When I entered West Point, it was all — what should I say — boots on the ground and kill the bad guys for a better life at home," he said. "That is not what we do here."

For Tardieau, it's been a similar experience, albeit from a different perspective. She majored in engineering psychology at West Point and concentrated on social networking on the Internet, which has qualified her to help track terrorist networks, among other things. In Afghanistan, however, Tardieau is an adviser to a young Afghan intelligence officer who'll serve in an Afghan Border Police brigade.

"It is more of a partnership than mentorship, and I've learned as much from him as I suspect he has from me," she said of her Afghan counterpart. "The Afghan security forces have a great thirst for knowledge, and they are improving by leaps and bounds."

"Afghanistan is such a vastly different culture than our own," she said. Her Afghan intelligence colleague has taken photos alongside her and shown them to his wife. "She was shocked to see an American woman in uniform," said Tardieau.

"In order to be culturally sound, if we ever have a stern message to deliver to the Afghans, I have it delivered by my sergeant first class, who is a man," she said, noting the local Pashtuns' sensitivity to men accepting the demands of women.

As for her future husband, Tardieau admits that when they first met, "We didn't get along very well." The two didn't fall for each other until they competed on the same team against British cadets in the Sandhurst competition, which pits American cadets against their British counterparts in a battle of military prowess that includes a "gas mask run" and wall climbing.

When they return from Afghanistan, the couple is planning a large wedding with Texans, Oregonians and a few of their West Point classmates invited to partake in Alaska's wonders.

"We both love Alaska," said Yoho, smiling as he handed out a promotion to his chief medic. "We want our relatives to come up and see what splendors it has to offer, including skiing and biking. We want them all to see Mount McKinley and experience a completely different lifestyle."

(Smucker is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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