War And Weddings

They have sacrificed. But for brides whose fiances are in the military overseas, yesterday brought an unexpected gift.

April 26, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

It sounded too good to be true: free wedding gowns for military brides. No catches. No gimmicks. No fine print. For a group of women who turned up at Betsy Robinson's Bridal Collection in Pikesville yesterday, the event brought them a pleasant surprise.

"My heart's tired from beating so fast," said Mandy Burkindine, 20, as she picked out a $1,000 gown with a beaded bodice. The empire waist flattered her petite frame, and the hem sparkled with sequins. "I was crying when I tried it on," she said.

She stood in front of the mirror and imagined the future. In June 2005, her fiance, Zach Bayhan, is scheduled to come home from his tour of duty in Mosul, Iraq.

He popped the question a week ago while home on a 15-day leave. She was looking for a dress that he would like - "classy" but "not real glitzy."

Burkindine, who lives in Pasadena, was first in line to be pampered by the staff. She waited for an hour and a half in the chilly weather with her mom, dad, aunt and sister: 6-year-old Halle Cox, who will be a flower girl in the wedding.

Starting at 1 p.m., the store gave away free gowns to members of the military - or fiancees - serving abroad or recently back from war. A bride simply needed to show deployment papers in order to view the dresses. Women walked out the door with dresses worth up to $2,500, huge smiles and, of course, some tears.

"We're doing it as a thank you to all these people and their fiancees who've served our country," said Betsy Robinson, owner of the store. "Many of these brides and grooms have had to put their wedding plans on hold, or moved them up." At least 14 bridal stores across the country have held similar events. Robinson frequently talks with owners of other bridal shops, and when she learned how well a similar event went in Tampa, Fla., she decided to organize one here.

About 25 brides came to the store - far fewer than expected. The store had planned to give away as many as 100 dresses. "I got a lot of calls - people were asking if there was a gimmick," said Robinson. "Every bride that has been in here so far has found a dress that she loves."

An employee - wearing a red, white and blue scarf - was assigned to each bride to help her select gowns, try them on and fetch additional ones. It wasn't as much of a madhouse as some expected.

"I thought it would be 600 screaming brides," said Matthew Tracey, 23, who lives in Cockeysville. He spent seven months in Iraq and now waited on a couch while his fiancee, Heidi Buchanan, 23, tried on dresses. "I've never heard of something like this," he said. "You only see it on television - or in New York."

He has been back since September but is worried he might be called up again. "I'm glad people actually appreciate what we did. I'm still in shock by all of this," he said.

He hid outside when Buchanan came out wearing the dress - she didn't want him to see it until their wedding day.

"It's a `sure to make him cry' dress," she said of the long gown with thin beaded straps.

Not all of the brides were - well - unwed. Some had already exchanged vows hurriedly before their husbands left for overseas. The dresses they picked out are for larger celebrations planned for after their husbands return.

Heather Hegner and Dan Voss got married last year. They didn't have time for a proper wedding because he was shipping out for Iraq in four days.

"She won't take my last name until we do it proper," said Voss.

Now that they have a dress - Hegner liked the first one she tried on, an Alencon lace gown - they can start looking forward to their real wedding.

Odessa Banks Griffith, 41, of Windsor Mill, got married 10 days before her husband, Irving, left for Iraq. He's not due back until December 2005.

She tried on four dresses and picked a beaded gown that would cost $2,500. "I didn't think I'd like all the sequins - but it fits so well," she said. "When I put it on ... it said take me home. He's going to be totally surprised."

She was overjoyed by the dress - but clear about her priorities. "I just want my husband home," she said.

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