Military Couples Rush to Get Married

When Capt. Corey Gilliland proposed to Amelia Maness on Sept. 10, he looked forward to a long engagement, followed by a wedding somewhere exotic — Scotland, Africa or perhaps the South Pacific.

"That was our plan," said Gilliland, an Army flight surgeon at Fort Bragg. "Until Sept. 11."

So Monday, on a courthouse plaza with a magistrate rattling off vows at an auctioneer's pace, the two exchanged rings as have countless other military couples scrambling to cement their relationships before an uncertain future in President Bush's war on terrorism.

"We didn't know how long we had," the new bride said in a quivering voice. "We felt a strong sense of urgency to do this."

Military personnel at Fort Bragg and other bases have been put on alert or received orders to ship out. And the scene on the courthouse plaza in Fayetteville is being played and replayed in military towns across the country.

At the Candlelight Wedding Chapel outside Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, more than half of the 17 couples married since the attacks were from the base.

"They've pretty much all opted for just the 'Short and Sweet,"' the $85 service that offers "enough to make it legal," said chapel co-owner Mary Spicer. "It was so busy, it was hard keeping everybody straight."

Couples from the military bases around Norfolk, Va., lined up at the courthouse door waiting to marry. Marriage commissioner Reid H. Carawan said he married more than 50 couples in the days following the terrorist attacks. Last year at this time, he'd wed 10.

In Burlington County, N.J., home to McGuire Air Force Base and Fort Dix, three couples asked a judge Monday to waive the state law that requires them to wait 72 hours between getting a marriage license and taking their vows.

John Sweeney, Superior Court assignment judge for the county, told his secretary to have the couples come in. And he mobilized his own troops to handle what he considers almost a patriotic duty.

"I'm also alerting my judges to be considerate of people's needs and to make themselves available for weddings at all hours if they need to be," Sweeney said. "I think we owe it to them."

Usually, Christian County, Ky., deputy clerk Marcia Bell handles about three to five marriage registrations a week — but not since the attacks.

"Just from couples from Fort Campbell, we've had 20 couples register for marriage licenses," Bell said. "Most of them are getting married for financial or military insurance reasons."

Clerks across the country say this spike is typical of any kind of deployment. Several said the numbers don't yet equal what they saw a decade ago during Operation Desert Storm.

"It happens all the time," said Justice of the Peace Keith Cullen, whose office is less than 10 miles from Louisiana's Barksdale Air Force Base. "But I haven't gotten any calls yet since the attack. I'm surprised."

But there has been a steady stream at the courthouse in Fayetteville.

"We've got whole companies coming in together," joked sheriff's Deputy Robbie Johnson. "It's, `Fall out and get hitched."'

For Gilliland and Maness, it was a little more serious.

Gilliland picked a quaint French restaurant in Key West, Fla., as the spot to propose. When he put the little velvet box on the table, it sat there unopened while Maness struggled to stop shaking.

"I couldn't remember if I said yes. I had to ask, 'Did I answer you?"' said Maness, 32, of Augusta, Ga. "And then, the next day, the world kind of fell apart."

The next few days were a blur. The couple hurriedly shopped for Gilliland's ring. Maness skipped classes at the University of Georgia, where she is pursuing a doctorate in education. And Gilliland, a 34-year-old Mesa, Ariz., native, got time off for the wedding but had to come in his battle dress.

"Normally I wouldn't do this in my duty uniform, but I have no clothes," he said apologetically. "They're all packed."

Magistrate Daniel Armagost led the couple outside to the plaza. Standing beside a monument to the county's fallen soldiers, the two stared into each other's eyes and exchanged vows.

They then embraced the kind of embrace that will have to last a long time. When they finished, as if on cue, the bells of a nearby church tolled.

"We've never taken our time for granted because we've had to go back and forth on the weekends to be together," the new Mrs. Gilliland said after the ceremony. "But this weekend, we've kind of relished each moment and seen each day that he's gotten to stay as a gift."