LIVERMORE FALLS — When Heather Braley returns to Afghanistan, she's taking her husband, Dylan, with her.
The pair of Maine National Guard soldiers will live in separate quarters at a U.S. base in the Afghan capital of Kabul. They'll serve in different platoons. And they'll likely meet up only now and then, perhaps in the gym for a workout or the mess hall for a meal.
But for the couple who celebrated their first anniversary on Feb. 2, it's enough.
“I'm the optimist,” said Heather, who turns 24 in a couple of weeks. “I think we'll see each other pretty often.”
Dylan is more cautious.
"I'm just expecting the least contact," he said. "That way, I'm not disappointed.”
The 20-year-old husband joined the Guard last year, knowing that Heather, a sergeant with the Maine Guard's 1136th Transportation Company, was due to go to Afghanistan.
He hated the thought of not seeing his wife for a year. He also imagined how it might feel if something happened to her on a patrol and he were home in Maine, 6,500 miles away.
“That's the only reason I volunteered,” Dylan said. “That's it. She'd better stay on the (base).”
As always, Heather plans to go where her job takes her.
She enlisted at 17, hoping to raise some money for school. She attended Thomas College in Waterville for a while. Then, the Army called, sending her to Afghanistan in 2006 with the 240th Engineer Group.
She worked as a motor pool operator, usually staying within the confines of her forward operating base. But there were times when she served on patrols, leaving the protection of walls and gun towers.
Those experiences changed her.
“When I came back, I was a completely different person,” she said. She became hyper-aware of what everyone around her was doing. She matured. She was more thoughtful.
She also came back with stripes. She's a sergeant. Dylan is a private.
"He'll mature," she said, smiling at him as they sat together in their kitchen.
On their table sat a stack of bills, each set to be paid automatically while the couple serves abroad. When they return, they hope to use their overseas pay as a down payment on a house to replace their mobile home.
However, 2011 seems far away.
"Last time, I only had to worry about myself," Heather said. "This is a whole new ballgame."
This time, she is watching out for herself and Dylan. Before he signed up, Heather insisted on describing her experiences to him. Practical and honest, she gilded nothing.
Dylan's plan to join his wife went unchanged. He endured basic and advanced training.
“I'm not scared at all,” he said.