The words "I love you" may seem especially dear to lovers spending this Valentine's Day apart, separated by the war in the Persian Gulf. Here are the stories of two Marylanders who have found that absence has made their hearts grow extremely fond indeed.

Rachael Valmas and U.S. Army Spc. Mark Crissinger plan to bmarried just as soon as he returns from the gulf -- and right after they meet for the first time.

Call it karma or coincidence or love before sight, theirs is surely a Long Distance Romance par Excellence.

At the least, this is one time the post office really delivered.

The two became pen pals in August, telephone buddies in September and fiances on New Year's Eve, says Ms. Valmas, a Fells Point resident. Although a date hasn't been set, the couple plans to get married in Baltimore and reside at Fort Hood, Texas. "We decided that once he gets home we didn't want to be just pen and paper anymore," she says.

The romance was kindled by Cupid -- in the form of Mr. Crissinger's sister. Ms. Valmas, a manicurist at Great Heads in Baltimore, caught a glimpse of Mr. Crissinger's photograph while visiting his sister, Michelle, and mentioned that the 23-year-old soldier was "cute."

The sister, as sisters so often do, passed the word along.

And it seemed "cute" is a word to warm a homesick man's heart: Mr. Crissinger requested that Ms. Valmas drop him a line or two.

The couple began exchanging letters in August when Mr. Crissinger was stationed at Fort Hood, says Ms. Valmas. In September, when he was sent to the Persian Gulf, the letters began to fly fast and furiously. Once Mr. Crissinger received 19 letters simultaneously.

His letters revealed he's an Army brat who speaks German and has been just about everywhere except Japan and Ocean City.

Hers revealed she has lived in the same house her entire life.

"We talked about that because it's scary," the 19-year-old Ms. Valmas says. "I've been to New York for hair shows and to Ocean City and to Virginia, but I've never been more than five hours away from home."

He plans on being a state trooper. She completed her high school credits at Dundalk Community College, then attended El Dorado Cosmetology Academy in Highlandtown.

But the pen pals found more common ground than not: They both hate dance clubs and boisterous crowds and think Italian food is to die for. And they define the perfect date as "renting movies and staying in," says Ms. Valmas. "Mostly we want the same exact things."

Besides, he sent her roses.

She sent him Oreos.

It was a match made in heaven, they figured.


Gail Cilento had known Cpl. Robert Conroy about three hours when she announced she was going to marry him.

The Carney resident's wish came true a little sooner than she planned, however.

The couple was married Dec. 8 -- precisely one year after they met, almost one year ahead of schedule and about three weeks before Mr. Conroy left for the Persian Gulf.

"He said, 'Are you going to marry me before I go?' " Ms. Conroy says.

"I said, 'Of course.' "

And so, in mid-November, when Mr. Conroy, who was stationed in Camp Lejeune, N.C., found out he'd be leaving soon, the great wedding scramble began. The original wedding date, Oct. 12, 1991, was scrapped and the 20-year-old Parkville High graduate and her mother, Lavona Cilento, planned a wedding for 60 guests in one month. "It was a very stressful month," says Ms. Conroy.

Long-distance marriage can be wearying, as well. "I don't watch the news. I take two gym classes and I stay busy," to avoid becoming immersed in news about the war, says Ms. Conroy, who works in food service at the Marriot Hunt Valley Inn.

And to make matters worse, "People keep asking me, 'What does it feel like to be married?'

"Well, I don't know, except I have a ring . . . I can't wait to find out."

But when Mr. Conroy, who's from Herndon, Va., writes that he hasn't had a shower in two weeks and is feeling the strain of waiting for decisions to be made about a ground war, Ms. Conroy figures it was worth it. "I think he needed the security [of marriage] so he's not so lonely," she says.

She encourages her new husband by writing every day and sending candy: Sweetarts, Now and Laters, Chiclets and Valentine's Day hearts with messages.

Perhaps in an effort to balance out all that sugar, she includes sugar-free Kool-Aid, because Saudi Arabian water tastes bad, she says.

In return, he sends her funny, bald, stick figure pictures of "my 'wife' " that look nothing at all like Ms. Conroy, who has tawny hair that tumbles to her waist.

But Mr. Conroy's letters have their flowery moments: "Remember when we got married?" he wrote on Jan. 23. "Well, I promised God that if he let me marry you . . . I would raise our family under his word. He kept his part of the deal and you can bet he's going to give me a chance to keep up my end, too . . . I love you with every single bit of anything and everything a person could ever love someone with!"

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