Red tape mutes wedding bells for sergeant

OCEANSIDE, CALIF. — OCEANSIDE, Calif. -- They were separated by two seas -- one of salt water, one of red tape -- and, as in any good love story, they set out to conquer those obstacles.

It took almost a year, but Julie Ople was granted a limited visa, allowing her three months to come to the United States and marry Tim Burke, a Marine sergeant from Moorestown, N.J., who met, courted and proposed to Ms. Ople while he was stationed in the Philippines.


On Oct. 26, she arrived in Southern California -- two months after Sergeant Burke was sent to Saudi Arabia.

Sergeant Burke, 28, who was stationed at Camp Pendleton near here before he was sent to Saudi Arabia, had hoped that he would be granted a leave, allowing him to return briefly to get married, or that his fiancee's visa could be extended until he returned.


But neither the Immigration and Naturalization Service nor the Marines are budging. The Marines have told Sergeant Burke that he's needed where he is. Immigration officials say the three-month limit is a firm one.

And hopes for a proxy marriage -- a last resort that Sergeant Burke's friends and family came up with -- were shattered when they found out that New Jersey, Sergeant Burke's legal place of residence, does not deem it legal.

On Jan. 24, if she is still unmarried, Ms. Ople, 27, must return to the Philippines and start the uncertain process of applying anew for a visa. That, Sergeant Burke's friends and family fear, could take years.

"It's kind of hard, but I don't lose my hope. I'm still wishing that he can be home soon," Ms. Ople said last week, sitting in Sergeant Burke's apartment 40 miles north of San Diego, where she spends most of her time in her room writing letters to Sergeant Burke.

"You've got to give her credit. She came here on blind trust," said Philip Simpson, Sergeant Burke's roommate and the man to whom Sergeant Burke granted power of attorney, so that he could stand in as substitute groom.

"She was kind of like a mouse at first. She never came out of her room and she asked for a lock on her bedroom door. Now she comes out, sits and watches TV. She's a very nice, shy person," said Mr. Simpson. Ms. Ople's visa does not permit her to work; Sergeant Burke is supporting her from Saudi Arabia.

Ms. Ople met Sergeant Burke in 1988 when her sister's husband, a friend of Sergeant Burke's, introduced them in the Philippines. Sergeant Burke's job as a helicopter crew chief took him in and out of the country, but Ms. Ople remembers the times he was there with precision.

"He was there 15 days in 1988. In 1989 he came Aug. 7 and stayed 15 days. He came back Sept. 9 and stayed 10 days. He came Nov. 8 and left on Nov. 19."


On that visit, his last before returning to Camp Pendleton, Sergeant Burke proposed, Ms. Ople accepted and the two began making plans. Sergeant Burke sent Ms. Ople the paperwork to apply for a visa.

The U.S. Embassy in Manila issues more visas than any consular office in the world -- more than 45,000 were granted in the fiscal year that ended in September, more than 600,000 applications are on file. Immigration officials say the Philippines is second only to Mexico in backlog and delays in issuing visas.

When Ms. Ople was finally granted her visa in October -- good for between Oct. 24 and Jan. 24, 1991 -- Sergeant Burke advised her to use it, even though by then he had been sent to Saudi Arabia. "They went through a lot of paperwork to get Julie here," said Sergeant Burke's father, John Burke, who lives in Philadelphia. "They didn't want to go back to square one."

Before shipping out, his family said, Sergeant Burke, who joined the Marines after graduating from high school 10 years ago, had been told that should Ms. Ople be granted a visa, he could take leave. In November, however, as tensions heightened in the gulf, he was told that he could not.

Duke Austin, a spokesman for the INS in Washington, said Ms. Ople would have to go to the San Diego office of the INS and "throw herself on their mercy for an extension.