Bob and Dorothy Fonow’s marriage has never suffered from a lack of communication. Whether they were separated by thousands of miles or hectic work schedules, they didn't struggle to keep in touch.
BUT WHEN the Herndon couple celebrates Valentine’s Day next week, followed by their 33rd anniversary two days later, they will have to contend not only with long-distance calls and a tricky time difference, but with helicopter noise, mortar fire, and other sounds of war that infiltrate any phone call to Baghdad.
Bob, 57, who originally met Dorothy in her native England as a member of the U.S. Air Force in 1973, began a one-year stint in Iraq in September as a telecommunications consultant for the U.S. State Department. His role, formally referred to as “senior consultant to the ministry of communications in Iraq,” is to assist the Iraqis in re-building their telecommunications industry, including its regulatory structure and competition system.
“The telecommunications industry is one of the positive things going on in Iraq,” Bob said. “[What I’m doing] facilitates peace more than takes it away.”
While her husband helps re-build the social network of an entire nation, Dorothy, 55, has a similar mission here at home. She serves as the executive director of the Western Fairfax Christian Ministries (WFCM), based in Chantilly, which assists thousands of area residents in need through its Ways & Means thrift store and food pantry, among other services. Some 1,200 families are helped each year with a combination of the ministries’ services, and approximately $700,000 worth of food and $3 million worth of clothing are provided to its clients each year.
WITH SUCH demanding responsibilities, it is a wonder that the couple still manage to talk every day. For the Fonows, traveling has been a built-in aspect of their relationship since the day they first met. After just 4 months of dating, the couple was married Feb. 16, 1974. They remained in the United Kingdom for 12 years after that, and had both of their children — Nia, 27, and Jay, 23 — there. After a pair of transfers with different telecommunications companies, Bob and Co. ended up in this area, where they have remained for 18 years.
Bob’s consulting jobs with various corporations, as well as the Department of Defense, the National Defense University, and the state department, have taken him all over the world. He has been gone for months at a time in China, Japan, Russia, and several others, but never anywhere this volatile.
“This is the first time he has been in a war zone,” Dorothy said. “Even when he was with the U.S. Air Force, he never went anywhere like this.”
While Bob works primarily at the U.S. embassy and other foreign ministries in the safer international zone, he occasionally has to pass through the “red zone” for certain tasks, which he does under heavy military escort.
“It’s dangerous and unpredictable,” Bob said. “There’s hardly any difference between this job and any other troubleshooting job — except that I’m getting shot at.”
While Dorothy may be used to the separation involved with Bob’s line of work, the danger element is a new source of worry for her. But because of the nature of his position, Bob is provided more latitude in his abilities to contact and even see his wife. The Fonows correspond daily via e-mail and talk on the phone about every other day. The main challenge is not getting through to one another, but working around the eight-hour time difference.
“It’s pretty easy to be in touch here,” Bob said. “It’s the marvel of modern communication.”
Since Bob left in early September, the couple have seen each other twice — a late-November rendezvous in Jordan, and a homecoming for Bob for New Year’s. They have another meeting planned for later this month in Dubai.
WHILE STAYING in touch is not as difficult as one might believe, the extended separation, and the loneliness that accompanies it, are unavoidable.
“Do you miss one another? Obviously,” Dorothy said. “But this isn’t new to us. This is an arrangement we’ve had before.”
“You get lonely,” Bob said. “That’s the worst. But some jobs come with loneliness built into them. I feel it, but I don’t really have time to think about it.”
Both Dorothy and Bob work seven days a week, and Bob’s work days often stretch 12 hours, which doesn’t leave much time to wallow in loneliness. Years of elongated separation have taught them exactly what it takes to remain strong and true to one another.
“Communication is the key,” Dorothy said. “You have to be flexible and comfortable with each other. You can’t second-guess everything.”
“Sometimes, you have to be comfortable being on your own,” Bob said. “And you have to love each other; otherwise there would be no point.”
Bob’s time in Iraq officially ends in September, but could extend to the end of the year if he opts to stay. While the Fonows will be missing two major events next week, they know they will make up for it the moment they see each other.
“You make your own holidays when you’re together,” Bob said. “When we’re together, we always have a great time.”