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Taco Bell, tents and a tender romance

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Jessica Lynch was shopping Friday in Washington, D.C., and thinking about her wedding dress.

The rosy-cheeked soldier who was captured in Iraq last spring is engaged to Army Sgt. Ruben Contreras, 24, a native of Colorado Springs.

The couple plans to marry in June and might settle there, because Contreras, stationed in Texas, hopes to leave the Army next year and attend college in town.

But before Lynch says "I do," she has to meet the family, so she's headed to Colorado Springs for Thanksgiving.

Lynch, 20, who still walks with crutches, had one detail of the wedding on her mind Friday. Would she be able to find the dress she wants in Colorado? She called Contreras' mother, Lisa Latorre, in Widefield, Colo. "I checked, and she can get the dress here. She was really happy," Latorre said.

It was a small detail in the couple's romance after enduring capture, uncertainty, painful therapy and the glare of alternately flattering and scathing media coverage.

Latorre is careful to keep the date and location of the wedding a secret.

The couple met almost two years ago at a Taco Bell near Fort Bliss, Texas, where each was stationed. Contreras saw Lynch sitting with Pfc. Lori Piestewa, who was later killed in the Iraq attack.

"They just started talking and flirting. He thought she was really cute," Latorre said.

Contreras punched his phone number into Lynch's cell phone and told her to call him. Three days later, she did.

Contreras gave her an ID bracelet she always wore on her left wrist _ even when she was sent to Iraq.

He wrote an e-mail to his mother saying, "I've never felt like this about a female before."

In January, Lynch was shipped to Kuwait. Contreras' company followed a few weeks later. Luck put their tents side by side in the desert. The two passed long letters secretly to keep their relationship below the radar, fearing they'd get in trouble if people knew. "He wrote to her, "If we ever get out of here, we're going to get married. No one's going to get us apart again,' " Latorre said.

When Iraqi soldiers captured Lynch, they took the bracelet Contreras gave her.

When Contreras called after the rescue, Latorre dialed Lynch on a three-way call and put them in touch for the first time since the capture.

"She said, "I love you,' and then he said, "No, I love you' and she said, "No, I love you,' " Latorre said. "I had to put down the phone and give them some privacy."

Contreras couldn't be there for Lynch's April birthday, but he had Latorre give her a bracelet to replace the stolen one.

Contreras was sent home to the United States in mid June. His first order of business was to buy a promise ring.