A bittersweet prelude to possible war took place near Fort Bragg on Friday: In a courthouse ceremony witnessed only by strangers, Army Sgt. Danny Skildum got hitched to his sweetheart, Pamela Brady.
With more deployments looming, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of soldiers and sailors from Camp Pendleton, Calif., to Camp Lejeune, N.C., are asking their partners to be theirs - and making haste to the courthouse before their units ship out. Sergeant Skildum is no different. Asked if the chance of war has changed the timing of his union, the tall, towheaded soldier nods vigorously: "Oh, yeah."
This march to the altar, many say, is new evidence of how prospects of battle often tug soldiers toward an enduring fact: the urge to celebrate life - and seal contracts - in the face of war.
"This is similar to what happened before World War II and the Korean crisis, when people are suddenly drawn back to what is really important," says Julaine Appling, director of the Family Research Institute of Wisconsin in Madison. "If one of you is going into a combat situation, you want something that knits you together, that says, 'I'm yours and you're mine.' "
He in black jeans and cowboy boots, she in a leather jacket, Danny and Pamela saunter from the courthouse to the county jail. On the first floor, at a cramped judicial throne frequented more often by crime suspects than by newlyweds, a stern magistrate, Daniel Armagost, instructs them in official "I dos."
"The ceremony usually takes two minutes," he says, peering out from a pane of plexiglass. "Three, if you talk slow."
Both previously married, the Skildums aren't planning a party. Instead, says Pamela, they'll crash the fest of a couple of friends at the base - who also just pushed their wedding date up by several months.
The long line Friday at the Cumberland County register of deeds office is also a sign that military bases, when on alert, become nuptial turnstiles. In fact, hundreds of women - and some men - are flocking across the country to make it to the courthouse on time. Some couples here in Fayetteville have shown up at the magistrate at 3 in the morning of the day they're due to ship out.
And this rumble of vows seems to be growing nationwide. Before nearly 10,000 troops and sailors left Morehead City, N.C., last week, 235 military couples were married near Camp Lejeune - more than twice the usual January total. Outside the gates of Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, the "I Do" Weddings Chapel expects a record 100 January nuptials. About 7,500 Marines are awaiting orders to ship out from that port city. And in Florida's Palm Beach County, the chief judge waived a three-day waiting period for several reservists, the day after their company learned they'd be deployed.
ROBIN Annand and her mom, Gail Annand, drove 22 hours from Minnesota to North Carolina on Friday for a hastily planned Saturday wedding at the Elizabeth Chapel. Ms. Annand had originally scheduled it for May 10, but decided to push up their plans because her groom, Army Spc. Isaiah Doby, may well be one of the 7,000 troops deployed from Fort Bragg in the next few weeks.
Behind the quickly assembled wedding parties and mismatched bridesmaid dresses, there's a pragmatic reason for the flurry of "I dos." In the backs of their minds, most couples admit, is concern for those left behind: If they're married, stay-behind spouses receive social services and base housing - and a $250,000 soldier's life insurance policy. "It's the smart thing to do," says Annand, who is herself a reservist in the Minnesota National Guard.
Beneath a sign that says "no headgear and no hats," Mr. Armagost holds a more cynical view. "This always happens: All the GIs get married before war," he says. "And what happens six months later? They're back, and they're getting divorced."
Still, most of the couples at the courthouse on Friday had been planning to get hitched. And that's true nationwide, says Ms. Appling of the Family Research Institute: "Fear is a powerful motivator."
For most of these beret-clad brides and grooms, the prospect of war has dimmed the notion that you can't hurry love. "There are people everywhere getting married," says Diana Fisher, assistant registrar for Cumberland County, which is home to Fort Bragg. She was happy to oblige some 45 military couples on Friday - at a gray time of year when the Register of Deeds usually issues marriage licenses to a mere 15 couples each day.
Despite the imminent departures forcing many of these vows, the glow could hardly be rubbed off the scene. Standing in line with his future wife and mother-in-law, Specialist Dory wipes sudden tears from his eyes. Next to them are a smiling couple, both in fatigues. As he waits for their papers to be sealed, Danny Skildum grins uncontrollably, while Pamela Brady fills in a friend on her cellphone.
Manning the metal detector outside the registrar's office, Cumberland County Sheriff's Deputy Tracy Grady says a lot of soon-to-be couples have been standing in line for their marriage papers since late December. Many of the men, Mr. Grady jokes, have the same absent-minded look as they try to find the registrar's office: "He always looks like he's not sure where he's going, and she's always got a look like, 'Oh, yes, you do.'"
In Robin Annand's case, her mother, Gail Annand, couldn't be more supportive: "All my friends were asking me if they were going to push the wedding up," she says. "I'm glad they did."
In Vista, Calif., at "I Do" Weddings, owner Rae Weeks says that rush sweetens the vows: "The idea of a soldier getting married before he goes off to war makes the ceremony a little more romantic," she says, "and a little more sad."