- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

Marine Corps Col. Jim Howcroft flew to Mexico Wednesday from his California home to visit with his Russian fiancee, Ia Ivana Gorgidze, before he returns to military duty in Iraq.

“I’ll have to see her in Mexico, since I can’t see her in my own country,” Col. Howcroft, 46, stationed with the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, said in a telephone interview shortly before his departure.

The colonel said he has been waiting since mid-October for a “fiancee visa” that would allow his betrothed to marry him in the United States and live permanently here.

“I’m facing a yearlong deployment west of Baghdad, beginning in mid-February,” he said. “It would be a lot easier to face the hardship of deployment if I knew that someone who loved me was waiting for me at my home.”

Col. Howcroft does not know whether the State Department will issue the visa for his fiancee, whom he met six years ago when he was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia.

For the past year, Col. Howcroft said, Miss Gorgidze, 34, has been in Cancun on an employment visa. She serves as a management trainee at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in that resort city.

The colonel, who has been with the Marines since 1979, said no one at the State Department can tell him when, or even if, he will receive a visa for Miss Gorgidze.

“They can’t say if it will be tomorrow, next week or a month from now. … I find it astonishing that we can bring 30,000 Marines home from Iraq, rearm them and send them back in less time than it takes to get a visa for my fiancee,” he said.

Stuart Patt, a spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, said he is barred from discussing specific visa requests.

But he talked generally about the procedures involved in granting visas for Russians who want to marry Americans and live in this country.

“Eighty to 85 percent of such cases tend to be resolved in less than a month,” Mr. Patt said. “But sometimes these cases take longer than we like.”

Capt. Robert Brannon, chief of naval operations at the Naval War College, who describes Col. Howcroft as “my friend of long-standing,” accuses the State Department of “massive bureaucratic inertia” in its handling of the colonel’s visa request.

Pointing out that Col. Howcroft already has been in Iraq for nearly a year, Capt. Brannon said: “The State Department is not only unable, but also unwilling and disinclined to help those two deserving individuals.”

Mr. Patt denies such charges.

He said a fiancee visa gives a foreigner permission to marry an American in the United States, provided the ceremony occurs within 90 days of his or her arrival.

“An application for such a visa goes through all the same processing as an immigrant visa … applicants from some countries have to go through a traditional security review. Russia is one of those places,” Mr. Patt explained.

In such analyses, State seeks input from federal “law enforcement and intelligence agencies,” he added.

The spokesman said the State Department used to go ahead and issue the visas if it had not heard back from other advisory agencies within 30 days.

But September 11 changed all that, Mr. Patt said.

“To avoid problems, starting in July 2002, we began not issuing [fiancee] visas until we heard back from the other agencies.”

Col. Howcroft retorted: “I’m an intelligence officer, so I know you have to make sure people [entering this country] aren’t terrorists or bombers … but the way the State Department is handling this makes it appear uncaring, apathetic and uncommunicative.”

He pointed out that he personally appealed for help from his congressman, Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, California Republican, and former Secretary of State George P. Schultz, but neither was able to expedite his application for a visa for the woman he wants to marry.

“We’ll give [the State Department] another month. If we don’t get the visa in that time period, we’ll probably wind up getting married in Mexico,” Col. Howcroft said.

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