LACEY, Wash. – Their first real date lasted only 20 minutes. It ended because darkness was falling, when unimaginable new threats and nightmares could emerge on the streets of Baghdad.
The American soldier and the Iraqi woman were fighting all the odds.
They were in love and wanted to marry.
From 2004 to 2006, the two had carried on a friendship followed by a yearlong courtship conducted over the phone. Then one day after rehearsing in Arabic with an Iraqi friend, he proposed to her, and she accepted.
Yet after that final meeting in early 2006, the soldier was returning home to Washington.
The two vowed to be reunited in defiance of history, religion and danger.
Yet for the next two years, it seemed as though the entire world was against them.
In March 2004, when the newly mobilized Washington National Guard's 81st Brigade arrived in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Lance Caver, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle commander, noticed the young woman at the checkpoint near the Iraqi Convention Center to which he and his men were assigned.
She was wearing brown pants, a pink blouse and a gold chain necklace. She was Asraa Alaibi, then 24, newly graduated with a degree in English from the University of Baghdad.
"After I got my college degree, I got work as a translator in the Green Zone, at the gate," assisting screening and questioning of Iraqi women passing through, Alaibi says.
She and Caver never talked at length the first year.
Caver wasn't looking for a relationship. Besides, he figured, what would an educated, sophisticated woman like her, whom higher-ranking officers obviously were interested in, want with a guy like him?
He was devil-may-care with rough edges. He had been married. Each time he deployed, relationships ended. He had been to college but favored working heavy-construction equipment. He liked hunting and, especially, serving with the National Guard. And he was a biker, hanging out at home with fellow members of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association.
His friends call him by his biker name, Caveman. Now they call the couple "Caveman and the Hottie."
Alaibi, however, saw a good man with a heart of gold, not only toward her but also toward Iraqis.
Any ice between them was broken the first day Alaibi took a plate of food to the checkpoint.
"I joked, 'If you can cook this well, and put up with my crap and my deployment, I'll take you home in a heartbeat,"' Caver says.
"It was completely joking — a relationship was the farthest thing from my mind when I was overseas," Caver says.
Alaibi and her family, meanwhile, paid a heavy price for helping Americans. A brother disappeared and remains missing. A cousin was captured and killed.
"I was threatened three times, phone calls," Alaibi says. "Finally, my taxi driver was killed at the gate of my house." She saw him gunned down, the bullets meant for her. "After that, I just quit."
She took another job teaching English to Baghdad high school students.
Soon after their meeting, Caver and part of his platoon were sent away.
The two didn't see each other for six months.
When the 81st Brigade's deployment was over in March 2005, Caver was among 70 guardsmen who volunteered to remain for another year.
One was Caver's good friend Cpl. Glenn Watkins, killed by a car bomb three weeks into their second tour.
After Watkins' memorial service, Caver returned to Baghdad and picked up the phone, seeking out Alaibi.
"I don't know what I would have done without her that second year," Caver says. "Just hearing her voice kept me on an even keel. It kept me focused on my job." The couple did not go a day without talking.
"We'd be talking on the phone and a firefight would break out, and I'd have to call her back later," Caver said, as she prayed during the silence that he was safe.
One night, while Alaibi was talking on the phone from her bedroom, Caver heard shots from an AK-47 assault rifle. The shots sounded as if they were coming from her bedroom. Alaibi screamed and hung up.
Iraqi police had been chasing terrorists across her roof in a running gunbattle.
Alaibi is now 28; Caver 36.
Caver, from a Catholic background, grew up traveling around the world, including the Middle East. His dad, a former Army drill sergeant, was a globe-trotting private contractor.
Alaibi was born in southern Iraq just after Saddam started the war with Iran in 1980.
Alaibi's parents, a teacher and an employee of the education ministry, were a mixed Sunni and Shia marriage.
"I don't care, being a Christian or Muslim. I don't care about that," Alaibi says.
Caver and Alaibi say they were upfront with families, friends and, most important, military leadership, about their relationship. Alaibi and Caver say everyone was generally supportive.
Caver's platoon leader gave the green light to allowing Alaibi onto the base for their first and only date in Iraq, in early 2006, just before he was to return to the U.S.
"It was a shock, because we hadn't seen each other for so long," Alaibi says.
"We only had 15 to 20 minutes. She had to leave before it got dark, because when it gets dark it is extremely dangerous to be in that area. ... The base itself gets mortared, rocketed, car-bombed all the time."
Caver had started the paperwork to get Alaibi to the U.S. in late 2005 through an immigration petition for a visa. He asked a Seattle lawyer, Hal Palmer, to help.
"Once we started that paperwork, we had to get her out of the country," Caver said. It made the woman he loved a target.
Alaibi took a dangerous journey to reach the Jordanian border, only to be turned away.
"They told me my passport was bad," Alaibi says. She was forced to return to Baghdad, then back again to Jordan, only to be almost turned away again.
"I was pulling my hair out, but we were talking all the time," Caver says.
Alaibi became one of the tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees swamping Jordan and Syria.
Jordanian authorities and local police harassed her every week. One official tried to get her to go on a date with him in exchange for not deporting her to Iraq. Alaibi's U.S. immigration petition was later found to have been held up so long because he had checked the box that said "single" instead of "divorced," Caver says.
In the end, it was purely Alaibi's will that broke the logjam, Palmer says, crediting her "intelligence and resourcefulness in a very difficult situation."
She went to a U.N. refugee program, which, recognizing her work as a translator, made her a top priority for resettlement.
Six weeks ago, Alaibi arrived in the U.S., thanks to the help of the United Nations and several of Caver's friends who agreed to sponsor her.
In the preceding days, Caver and his family grew alarmed, unable to reach her by phone or e-mail.
Then one day she called. "Honey, do you know who this is?"
"Sweetheart, where are you?" he answered.
"I'm in Spokane!" she said.
In the middle of the night, he jumped in his truck and was in Spokane as the sun rose.
The meeting was awkward at first.
"Our biggest fear was that now that she is finally here, she won't like me, or I won't like her," Caver said last week, as they prepared their wedding.
"I still like him, yes," Alaibi says, brightening. "I was afraid he would change his mind."
After several weeks and several cross-state visits while her refugee status was worked out, Alaibi moved in with Caver in Lacey. They immediately planned a wedding.
She had feared "that Americans [in the U.S.] hate Iraqis, that they think we are terrorists."
That dissipated quickly, despite the culture shock after meeting his biker friends her first night in Lacey. Her first American clothes were leathers that she wore when they serenaded her at a karaoke bar, belting out Neil Diamond's song "America."
Alaibi recently found a temporary job play-acting as a civilian casualty for anti-terrorism exercises at Fort Lewis. She would like to teach Arabic some day.
Caver, an 18-year state National Guard veteran, would like to work but can't because of a service-related disability. He was an infantryman in Kosovo, then Iraq.
Despite their empty wallets, the couple moved quickly to arrange their long-denied wedding for this weekend, outdoors in Priest Point Park in Olympia with a reception with up to 100 invited guests, many bikers, at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post. Caver's family and friends opened their wallets along with their hearts to help.
No one from Alaibi's family can be there, but they phone every day.
National Guard Sgt. Syvilla Reynolds, whose fiancee served with Caver when he met Alaibi in Iraq, helped her shop for a gown.
A collection has been taken up to cover it.
Though the flight from Iraq is over, the two share nightmares at times.
"Sometimes I will jerk awake, a bad dream, or she has a bad dream," he says. "We both wake up and kind of cuddle and say we love each other, and it's all right."