Vows: Love’s Road Home

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Vows

By C. J. CHIVERS

The engagement began as notification more than proposal.

Samuel J. Siatta was an inmate in the Shawnee Correctional Center, a state penitentiary in southern Illinois, serving a six-year sentence for a home invasion in which he had struck another man with a frying pan. Ashley Volk was his off-again, on-again girlfriend since the sixth grade. It was early 2016. She had driven six hours to visit him between bartending shifts.

The two faced each other across a cafeteria table. He rested his tattooed arms on top. She noticed something unusual: a loop of blue prison-safe dental floss on the ring finger of his left hand. She had not seen this before.

“What’s that?” she asked.

That, he answered, was his hope. “It’s a reminder that when I get out of here we’re going to have a future, and I’m going to marry you, and we’ll have a real life,” he said.

Joy flashed through her, followed by dread.

Let it be known that Ashley Volk had loved Sam Siatta since elementary school, the age of True Love Always in sidewalk chalk. She loved him before he joined the Marines and went to war, before he descended into depression and alcoholism upon his return, before he was convicted on a felony charge for a crime he did not remember through a blackout fog.

But she was in no position to make plans. “I didn’t know when he was getting out,” she said. “He still had six years.”

Yet she had to admit it. She wanted him as her husband. She reached across the table to clutch his calloused hands, to examine that flimsy cell-block ring, to accept. A guard broke up the moment.

“No touching,” he said.

Ms. Volk leaned back. The couple began discussing other things. Maybe he’d propose again in 2022, after his sentence was served. Who can say what life holds?

At lunch time on Halloween Ms. Volk strode toward Mr. Siatta again, this time in an Illinois Appellate Court courtroom with a Chicago skyline view, to complete their relationship’s turnabout. She held a bouquet of supermarket roses and took her place beside Justice Terrence J. Lavin, who was ready with a speech that ended in her wedding vows.

The judge was the puppeteer of this latest act. He had his own motives, and he grinned.

“These two fighters are now, and shall forever remain, together,” he said. “And I have to tell you that I’ve never been more confident about a knot that I helped to tie.”

Much of the story Sam Siatta and Ashley Volk is a matter of record.

Late last spring, after an inquiry by The New York Times Magazine, Mr. Siatta, a former Marine rifleman suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, was abruptly released from prison.

The lead prosecutor in the county where he had committed his crime vacated the conviction and offered a plea deal to a lesser charge. Mr. Siatta began probation on condition that he use no alcohol and enroll in weekly mental-health care.

Things looked up. No longer Illinois Department of Corrections Inmate No. Y11107, Mr. Siatta continued his run of alcohol-free months, restored himself to top physical condition and resumed his live-in relationship with Ms. Volk, while training to enter the local mixed-martial arts club-fighting scene.

Then an administrative error at the Department of Veterans Affairs resulted in his disability pension being cut. As a felon on probation he could not find steady work. The beneficiary of an extraordinary act of mitigation, he was in possession of a coveted gift — a second chance. And he was flat broke, in a stall.

The next phase of his rescue fell to Ms. Volk. Her contribution can be summarized in three words. She carried him.

Ashley Volk took an unyielding position — that Sam Siatta was a good man, better than his record and stronger than his troubles, and he would succeed.

He was in PTSD counseling, trying to regain his confidence and calm. With a job tending bar three or four nights a week until 4 a.m. and Saturday until 5, she brought home her tips, amassing enough in small bills each month to keep a roof above their heads and food in the fridge.

Faith takes its tolls. Fires burn down and need fresh fuel. She does not pretend this was easy.

She’d return home after sunrise, spent and bleary, hoarse from yelling over music all night while catering to the drinkers still standing after the city’s other clubs closed. She’d sleep much of the day, and repeat.

Sometimes she felt sparkless, a drone heading into each harried, empty night. “After a couple of years of life as a 5 a.m. bartender you feel like you’re a zombie,” she said.

Her fatigue ran deeper than this, to years of worrying about Mr. Siatta, first when he was in Afghanistan, then when he was in prison, and now while he tried to find the work that might elevate his sense of self-worth. She stayed with it, dutifully, sometimes mechanically, “to be able to pay the rent, pay the bills, pay for the groceries, electric and phones.”

He was worth it, she said. This was the service of love. She had fallen for him at age 10. He was her boyfriend during much of high school, when she studied metal fabrication and welding in their small prairie town.

He left to join the Marine Corps, which decorated him for valor and praised him for saving other men’s lives. She had never wanted him in the corps. She dreamed peaceful dreams, of becoming a broadcast journalist or opening a dance school.

When 2017 arrived she was 26 and caring for the postwar version of her best friend — an able-bodied man without a job.

She knew she was blessed that he had survived. She fought to remember what she wanted to be. “It’s been so hectic for so long I think I forgot what I was good at, and what I like,” she said.

She almost dared not to say what she needed. She needed one more break. A job, she thought. Someone has to give Sam a job.

As Justice Lavin tells it, Conner T. Lowry, one of his nephews, showed up in a Marine recruiter’s office in 2008 as a “classic South Side Irish kind of kid.” Standing six feet five inches tall and weighing 220 pounds, he was exuberance personified (“live life large,” he used to say), and determined to enlist.

The judge was against the decision. He thought the United States had bungled the wars since the terror attacks in 2001 and that the Pentagon didn’t know what it was doing — circumstances in which the risks to the enlisted ranks were exceptionally high.

Young Mr. Lowry was firm. He told him, the judge said, that “he decided to get into the Marine Corps to straighten his life out a little bit.”

Family and friends saw him off from Cork & Kerry, an Irish bar in the Beverly neighborhood of Chicago. The judge, being a judge, knew when a case was lost. He observed the rituals. He hoisted a pint of Guinness, set aside his misgivings and threw in his blessing, with a toast.

“We have to support our country, support our flag, support our men and women in uniform,” he said. “Even if we disagree with the mission.”

By early 2012 Conner Lowry had been promoted to corporal and was on a combat tour in Helmand Province, Afghanistan with Golf Battery, Second Battalion, 11th Marines. He was an artilleryman. But under the Pentagon’s often incoherent counterinsurgency doctrine he was serving time as a provisional grunt, and going out on patrols.

On Feb. 29 he called his mother, Modie Lavin, to say he had a mission the next day and the mood around him was gloomy and tense. American troops at Bagram Air Base had burned copies of the Quran while disposing of prisoners’ possessions.

Protests had erupted. Relations between Afghan and American troops were strained enough at his outpost, Forward Operating Base Zeebrugge, that Corporal Lowry told his mother the Afghans had been asked to leave.

The next day Corporal Lowry was in the turret of a moving Marine vehicle when he collided with an electrical wire suspended above a rural road. He was killed.

Was it an accident? A trap? Ms. Lavin suspects the latter, but is not sure.

When her son’s remains were flown to Dover Air Force Base, where she was waiting for him, she learned that two soldiers whose bodies were on the same flight had been killed by Afghan troops. Retaliation against the desecration of the Quran, she heard.

The Marine Corps did not award Corporal Lowry a Purple Heart, a denial of honors indicating it determined he died in an accident, not by enemy action. An officer told Ms. Lavin they were investigating the exact circumstances. To this day, she said, the corps has not returned with a clear answer. The wondering does not stop.

“Don’t think for a second that I don’t go to bed every night thinking, ‘What the hell happened?’ ” she said.

Now an outreach coordinator at the Road Home Program at Rush University Medical Center, she helps veterans and their families suffering the effects of PTSD — one way of keeping her son’s name, and honor, alive.

Justice Lavin was haunted too, beset by grief. But he had no ready mission to perform. He slipped the Mass card from his nephew’s funeral under the driver’s-side visor of his car.

Last memories remain fresh. When Corporal Lowry was laid to rest the streets were lined with residents. The calling hours stretched on and on, as if the entire city filed through.

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The judge describes the day as Chicago’s finest moment. His voice slows and thickens when he talks of it. He fails to hold back tears.

In January, as Ashley Volk was living from shift to shift, the judge was working his way through the Sunday newspapers when he came upon an article about Sam Siatta and his Afghan combat tour.

Mr. Siatta had served in a role resembling that of a sniper. His company had fought hard, killing civilians in mishaps and Taliban fighters in gunfights. Then the Marine Corps left.

Missions changed, priorities shifted, some clock ran down. The village where Mr. Siatta and his peers had bled and killed returned to Taliban control.

Still jumpy from the war, he departed the military burdened by confusion, sorrow and shame. He was already drinking heavily. He started drinking more. Self-medicating, his family would later say.

On his last night with alcohol, in 2014, he smashed through the back door of a home near the house where he rented a room. No one knows why. Perhaps he was looking for his own bed.

Inside was another former Marine.

They fought. Police reports say Mr. Siatta swung a pan. The other man swung a knife. Cut nine times, Mr. Siatta lost.

By the time Justice Lavin finished reading, he felt as if he had been animated by his nephew’s ghost. He had seen enough of war’s costs. He wanted to make something right.

He resolved to contact Mr. Siatta and ask him how he was. “I owed it to Conner to help this kid out,” he said. “He seemed like he needed advice, like he needed someone to help him — someone who knew people in Chicago.”

Justice Lavin invited the couple to his chambers. When they sat to talk Mr. Siatta told him that he had been struggling to find work and his disability pension had stopped. He had almost no income and no good plan.

“I’m on a streak of bad luck,” he said.

“Well that’s about to change,” the judge said.

He asked Mr. Siatta what he needed.

A job, Mr. Siatta said.

Justice Lavin had worked in a steel mill as a young man. He had been elected to the bench with labor support. He knew some people in Chicago.

“How about we get you into a union?” he said.

The judge called Bill Mulcrone, an ironworker and regional director of Helmets to Hardhats, a nongovernment organization that places veterans in skilled jobs in the building and construction trades. Mr. Mulcrone spoke with Mr. Siatta in May.

The local carpenters’ union was accepting applications. Hundreds of people were filling out the forms. Mr. Mulcrone put Mr. Siatta at the front of the line.

Chicago’s trade unions, he said, liked hiring vets. “They value military service,” he said. “They give veterans a preference.”

In the summer Mr. Siatta began a nine-week union-run carpentry course. While completing his lessons, he realized he was on the cusp of a living wage, with health insurance and a pension plan.

Optimistic thoughts wandered his mind, like intruders, telling him he could be a provider now.

Mr. Siatta has a way of speaking that can be both straightforward and indirect. In September he and Ms. Volk were on a date to see the movie “It” and stopped for a meal at Noodles & Company. They were waiting for their food when he revisited the question.

“You know what, I think we should get married on Halloween,” he said. “We can get dressed up. We love Halloween. It will be fun.”

Ms. Volk was confused. “You mean next Halloween?”

“No,” he said. “This Halloween. In a few weeks.”

She started screaming, there in the restaurant, jumping up and down, kissing him. “Creating,” she said, “a scene.”

This time there was no guard to stop her.

Mr. Siatta called Justice Lavin, who agreed to officiate.

He invited a handful of guests — Richard R. Winter, who had been Mr. Siatta’s pro bono lawyer; retired Circuit Judge Donald D. Bernardi, who had called the prosecutor in 2016 to discuss Mr. Siatta’s case, setting into motion his post-conviction relief; Mr. Mulcrone, who arranged the job.

The judge exerted a modicum of order, forbidding outright the suggestion of the betrothed that they marry in costume. “Couple of oddballs,” he said, with a steelworker shake of the head.

He added his own festive touch, buying flowers and spreading orange rose petals on his courtroom floor for the bride to walk across.

By then Mr. Siatta had joined Carpenters Local 54 as an apprentice and started work, getting 8-to-10-hour shifts almost every workday. He was back to affording his own gas.

The loop of dental floss was gone. Ms. Volk had tucked it away in a drawer with cherished things.

Mr. Siatta entered the courtroom carrying the white-gold wedding band his father had worn. His father died of cancer when Mr. Siatta was 12. His mother had never remarried. She was in attendance, and had offered her own wedding band for the bride.

The time came for Ms. Volk’s walk with her father down the aisle. Later she would admit that she had dressed her groom perfectly only to give up on her hair and just tie it up. “I suck at being a girl,” she said. “I suck at matching things. I grew up welding.”

But the skyline outside the window glowed in the fall’s soft light, and the judge was beaming, and her man was there, standing straight. The rose petals showed the last steps of a long path, her road home. It felt right.

“It’s awesome today,” she said, “to feel pretty.”

She took her spot to the left of the judge, who noted that while Mr. Siatta’s journey was well-documented Ms. Volk’s had a rare quality, too.

Calling her a “tiny, giant-of-a-woman who stands before us today” he declared that “Ashley is not a quitter.”

“When Sam was not all that communicative while in battle in Afghanistan, she didn’t give up,” he said. “When he came back and was a more distant and remote kind of guy, she didn’t give up.”

“When he was convicted and imprisoned, she didn’t give up. She kept on fighting, for him and for them.”

He administered their vows, and sent them on their way.

Justice Lavin had not said a word about his own family’s loss in the Afghan war, about what had prompted him to reach from the bench into strangers’ lives.

The omission was deliberate. He wanted to let the couple live their own day large. He knew there would be many more toasts in the corporal’s name. And he figured his nephew would approve, though if he were present there would be no silence from him.

“He’d be thrilled,” he said. “He’d grab a cold one, top if off, and give them cheers.”

He paused. It was a long pause. The judge found his voice. “He’d be 30 in February,” he said.

That evening the newlyweds and their families celebrated over pizza.

Mr. Siatta kept checking his new phone, waiting for a text from his foreman to see if he had been given a one-day honeymoon or had to show for work in the morning. He was ready either way.

Ms. Volk had the night off. She had caught her share of shifts. They had reached a place where for once she could look a little further forward than that.

“We finally have a future,” she said. “We got Sam set up. He’s on the right track. Now it’s my turn.”

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