Loving Dangerously

Men in Peril and the Women Who Love Them

An edited version of this article appeared in Aquarius Magazine in November 2009 – find it online here.

For many women living in the UAE, any day their partner goes to work might realistically end in tragedy. Meet three tough wives who have weathered the stress of their husbands’ dangerous jobs and gained a stronger relationship for it.

Kasey Conrad, age 52, married 24 years to Dennis, age 49, air traffic controller

Dennis Conrad’s job of Air Traffic Control Specialist—keeping planes from crashing using radar, verbal contact, and technical wizardry—is famous for causing stress. This demanding occupation, however, became even more nerve-racking when Dennis took on a fourteen month stint at KAIA, the international airport of Kabul.

Despite Afghanistan’s ongoing conflict, Dennis’ wife Kasey didn’t worry about her husband’s safety when he first arrived in the tumultuous country. “There hadn’t been any major incidences at or near the airport for several years,” recalls Kasey, who met Dennis in 1983 in Houston, Texas. “Upon arriving at KAIA, however, the men were all issued helmets, flack vests, and oxygen masks. The fact that this equipment was necessary worried me. Also, the job itself is more challenging in Afghanistan because there is very little technological aid and no radar.” Even worse, the swarms of military aircraft get priority, so air traffic controllers have to be extra diligent to keep commercial aircraft clear of bombing missions.

Kasey’s fears soon became well founded. “After two quiet months, things went rapidly down hill, beginning with a suicide bombing at the airport’s front gate,” says Kasey, a Rehabilitation Therapist. “Everyone working at KAIA was required to live at the airport, so Dennis’ housing was literally between a runway and a helicopter pad.” As attacks on the base became increasingly frequent, Kabul was becoming a much more dangerous place in general. “To get or post mail, the controllers had to drive ten miles to the U.S. military base without military escort in an armoured car in full safety dress, a drive that could take up to an hour one way.”

Over the next several months, the attacks on the airport escalated; the final straw broke the night a mortar shell landed twenty yards from Dennis’ barracks. “Dennis and I were having a conversation on the computer when all of the sudden, he was not responding. It was an eerie feeling; for nearly two hours, he couldn’t contact me to let me know he was safe or what had happened,” recalls Kasey. “Luckily, the mortar shell didn’t explode, but that was when we decided it was time to move on.”

The silver lining is that, thanks Dennis’ experiences, this American couple now realize how much they truly mean to one another; Dennis, in fact, recently left his job in Kabul to work as an air traffic controller in Abu Dhabi, bringing Kasey from Texas to join him in December. “[Living in Abu   Dhabi] gives us a chance to share our lives in another part of the world, safely together.”

Though Dennis’ job in Afghanistan strengthened the Conrads’ relationship, it evoked mixed feelings in their children, Ali, age 20, and Michael, age 30. “My daughter missed my husband very much but always kept an optimistic outlook,” says Kasey. “My son, however, a political science major and a student of the Afghanistan and Iraq situations, was beside himself with worry and would implore Dennis to always wear his flack vest and his helmet.”

Plenty of contact helped Kasey cope. “I was fortunate enough to be able to communicate with Dennis nearly everyday he was away. It helped to be able to know that, at least in those moments, he was safe. I also do a lot of yoga and meditation,” says Kasey, a former yoga instructor. “I started writing a blog, too; the realization that others were sharing my experience inspired me to share some of the thoughts I was having.”

Sarah Currie, age 34, married 5 years to Steve, age 36, helicopter pilot

Though many wives have their imaginations to blame for their worries, Sarah Currie knows precisely what sort of danger her husband Steve encounters everyday—she does the same job for a living. Both Sarah and Steve encountered plenty of sticky situations flying with the Royal New Zealand Air Force. “We flew the Iroquois helicopter, mostly in New Zealand in support of the army, navy, and police doing search and rescue and counter terrorism, then some peace keeping operations over seas which were more dangerous,” recalls Sarah, a twelve year veteran of the RNZAF. “In East Timor, for example, the rebels had some serious firepower and were supposedly targeting our UN helicopters with things like RPGs and 50 caliber machine guns.”

Natives of New Zealand, the Curries both currently fly for Aerogulf Services, a Dubai-based helicopter company that contracts mainly to oil and gas companies flying to off-shore oil rigs, a job that involves plenty of risks. “When you’re flying near an oil rig, you’re in very close proximity to big metal structures, so if you’re not concentrating and you allow the aircraft to drift only slightly, you’re just seconds away from actually hitting something, like cranes and other metal structures,” says Sarah. “Even worse, some of these rigs have explosives and gas canisters stored onboard, so if the helicopter did collide with the rig and catch on fire, the whole thing could go up.” Considering the number of workers who live on the rigs, one helicopter crash could potentially end the lives of hundreds.

Despite the risks, Sarah says she doesn’t worry too much. “I know that Steve’s a very good pilot because I’ve flown with him myself. Unless something very drastic happens, he should be able to get the aircraft on the ground, so it’s not very likely that something would happen to him,” reassures Sarah. “If he had to drive to work every day on Sheikh Zayed Road, I would probably worry more than if he flew out to the oil rigs every day.”

Which is not to say that Sarah doesn’t care. “If something were to happen to him, it would devastate my entire life,” says Sarah. “We’ve been together for ten years now, and I can’t imagine life without him. The good news is that we’ve just had our first child, who looks exactly like Steve, so if something were to happen, Steve wouldn’t just fade away—I’d have a way to remember him.”

The perks of Steve and Sarah’s jobs especially outweigh the dangers for their son, one year old Will. “We work opposite shifts so that generally, there’s always one of us home with William and, because we don’t work too many hours, we still get lots of time off together,” says Sarah, who typically only flies 30 to 40 hours a month. “If we had ‘normal’ jobs, between working and fighting the traffic, we’d never get to see Will, so flying has been great for our family life.”

Even better is the positive effect the job has had on their relationship. “Flying, for all the danger, actually makes us closer because we can talk about it as colleagues, not just as husband and wife,” says Sarah. “We have a lot of respect for each other and it’s developed our friendship as well because we’re not just a couple, we’re also really good work mates.”

Stéphanie Goldman, age 36, married 4 years to Andrew, age 41, oil consultant

Though Andrew Goldman’s job renting drilling tools to oil companies rarely involves much danger, the lengths he has to go through to get to work are enough to cause his wife Stéphanie, a high school French teacher, considerable worry. “Once while flying out of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Andrew nearly died in a crash while taking off from the airport.  The plane banked too hard at a low altitude,” recalls Stéphanie, who hales from southwest France. “Somehow the pilots got control of the aircraft, but everyone thought they were going to die.” And for good reason—another plane recently crashed at the same airport with the same problem; this time, the pilots failed to regain control.

Even scarier than the über-budget airlines Andrew sometimes flies are some of the destinations his job has taken him; one such trip very nearly ended in Andrew’s murder. “Andrew and his colleagues were once attacked by people living in the Niger Delta while they were driving from Port Harcourt to BeniCity,” says Stéphanie, who has lived all over the world, including two years in Abu Dhabi. As they drove, would-be thieves threw nail-studded boards in the road, flattening two of Andrew’s tires.

After nearly crashing the car, Andrew stopped and two men came out of the jungle. They pointed guns at Andrew and his Nigerian colleagues, demanding money and everything in the car. While Andrew’s colleagues argued with the bandits, more and more armed men emerged from the jungle.  Andrew (who still plays rugby at full-throttle despite his age) decided that he was going to change one of the tires—if the robbers meant to shoot, they would have to shoot him in the back. “After Andrew changed the tire he got back in the car and waited.  Eventually, the thieves backed off long enough for all of them to escape.”

Though this story is not an isolated one, Stéphanie appreciates the perspective her husband’s perilous job brings to their relationship. “Every time Andrew goes, I suffer; I realize how much I love him and everything he does for our daughter and me. We cannot get bored with each other and when he comes back, it is like everything is new again,” says Stéphanie, mother of twenty month old Julia, for whom the distance is just as hard. “I believe it is going to get harder and harder as the kids grow older, but for now, he spends lots of amazing quality time with us when he can, and every time Daddy comes home is a big party.”

As coping mechanisms go, Stéphanie’s is a simple but effective one. “I just pray and ask my grandma to say a prayer as well because I know that God listens to her more than me,” says Stéphanie, who is due to give birth to a son soon. “Also, when our daughter was born, I asked my husband to really take care of himself and be careful because he has new responsibilities in life. But he is such a great dad that he is more careful now than ever.”

“I believe my husband will continue this job until he is 80 because he loves the adrenaline and the challenge of the job and always has terrific stories to tell when he comes back,” says Stéphanie of her rugged American spouse. “I respect his personality: intense, dangerous, and fierce. I let him do what makes him happy, even if I have to pray that God sends me my husband in one piece every time he leaves us. Our little family is certainly different than most in the world, but we cherish each other and never take each other for granted.”

How to Cope

Dr Kennon Rider, Professor and Director of Family Community Services at Michigan State University, Dubai, says that when loved ones are at risk, wives and children can cope with that stress using the BASIC method:

Beliefs and Values: What you believe and value can moderate your feelings, so spiritual or religious values can support you in tough times. Foster beliefs that are hopeful.

Affect: Feelings such as anger, fear, and sorrow need to be acknowledged, but they should not take over. Try to own and express these emotions, but work to control how much they affect you.

Social: Routines, family, and friends are very important as they offer positive support during times of stress. Play and exercise also buffer stress and allow time to process threatening information and manage it.

Imagination: Imaginations can run wild creating “worst case” scenarios, but imaginations can also lead to hopeful visions. Visualize what life will be like when the potential threat is finished.

Cognition: Logic and rational thinking can also help you consider just how realistic the danger is. Also, recognize that you need a coping strategy, rather than simply allowing your emotions to run wild.