This story could easily begin, “Once upon a time….”
I remember the headlines gushing throughout all the major news networks in the summer of 2000. I said to myself, “Damn fine job, devil dog.” I mean, who wouldn’t want to meet, rescue, and marry a royal princess?
Marine Jason Johnson and I sat down to talk about his marrying a Bahraini princess and the culminating effect it had on the media, the Marine Corps, and these two individuals’ marriage.
Jason wanted to be a Marine from day one. His recruiter bobbed and weaved with various MOSs until Jason declared, “I want to be Marine Security Forces.” Marine Corps Security Forces guard nuclear warheads, embassies, and have rapidly deployable anti-terror teams. The Marines who enter security forces are all infantry men, then go on to security force school in Chesapeake, Virginia. Jason says the best training of his life occurred in security forces school.
Before graduating from the security forces, you write down a list of three assignments—a “wish list” of sorts. Options include Rota, Spain; Naples, Italy; and Keflavik, Iceland, to name a few. Jason recorded his in order:
“I made out a wish list with Bangor, Washington; London, England; and Kings Bay, Georgia. I didn’t want to leave the States, but low and behold, I got sent to Bahrain.”
Jason got lit-up by a tenacious sergeant for wearing a baseball hat the moment he stepped on the tarmac. Things were not off to a great start. They loaded him in a van and set off for his new duty location, Al Mannai Plaza Hotel. The Marines were charged with guarding and ensuring the safety of the 500 American personnel who lived in the hotel.
Arriving at the hotel, Jason was in awe at the arsenal of Jersey barriers, Beretta pistols, 240 Gulf machine guns, and M16s wielded by the Marines. The place looked like it could house the world’s most deadly terrorist. Once inside, Jason was shown to his room and told by his beloved sergeant that someone would come for him later. He did not see anyone for three days.
A week-long guard school was started, detailing post orders, shift assignments, and local threats. The men were informed that Bahrain was a melting pot for numerous terrorist factions. The place was so hot, intelligence discovered that the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia was originally planned for Jason’s new home at the hotel.
Meeting the princess
Jason met the Bahraini royal, Meriam Al Khalifa, through another Marine when she called the hotel one night. They soon became close and their feelings began to escalate. He found out about her lineage three months into the relationship. It came up when he asked about her family.
“By the way, I’m a member of the royal family,” she said.
From then on, his meetings with her became very secretive. “If I was walking with her somewhere, it was obvious who she was and I received bad looks from people. Before I met her, we would hang out with ordinary girls and no one paid attention to us.” They would meet at movies, strategically entering and departing at different times.
Cease all contact: conflicting versions
Meriam told Jason that the Bahraini secret police had spotted them kissing at the famous Tree of Life. The police informed the parents, but no formal discipline was administered because of her status.
After two years of marriage, Meriam confessed that the story she had initially told wasn’t true. She admitted that her mom found pictures of Jason in her school bag.”I think she made it up and wanted out of her country. She was young and I’m not sure what was going through her mind.”
To this day, Jason doesn’t know her motivation for telling two different versions.
Communicating with dead drops
Jason and the princess were banned from seeing each other. Love proved too strong, however, and they quickly developed a way to communicate.
Meriam used a friend’s cell phone from school to set the plan in place. She told Jason to leave messages with a lady who worked at a jewelry kiosk in the mall. Once a week, Meriam would clear the drop and leave letters for Jason.
The couple met one more time before fleeing to the United States. The Marines snuck her into the hotel to facilitate this meeting. Jason pre-arranged for Meriam to bring along her passport photos.
“We had already spoken of the plan to flee Bahrain and get married. I didn’t want her to know all the details. I protected her in the event the plan went sideways.”
The couple talked briefly before the Marines dropped her back with her personal chauffer and royal security team.
Forgery and fabrication
Jason and the princess penetrated seven layers of security in Bahrain’s airport with fake documents.
“I got nervous at one point when the airline told us they didn’t have enough seats on the flight.”
He confidently showed his orders and expressed the need to return to the United States.
“After that, they were able to get seats for us.”
Meriam’s demeanor was surprisingly calm, noted Jason. “I told her not to say anything or ask questions.”
He confidently walked throughout the checkpoints with all pertinent documents in hand. “Here are my orders, and here are her orders.”
To fabricate the military identification, Jason found an insider in administration to aid them.
“I made up a green military ID card for her. My connection in admin gave me a file to print the ID. The problem was the paper I used; it was too light. I eventually went to heavier gloss paper to give the ID card weight.”
The only thing left was the holographic security measure.
“I visited the Navy admin office and told them my hologram was wearing off my personal ID. They laminated another piece over the old lamination. “I was able to just pop it off.” From there, Jason used an iron and towel to melt his newly acquired holographic lamination onto Meriam’s military ID.
Bahrain to London to Chicago
A supervisor for INS was already on the phone with the State Department when the couple arrived in Chicago. As the couple walked through immigration, the INS agent looked up and saw the lovebirds. They had also tried to catch them in London, but were about 20 minutes too late.
They were separated at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Meriam timidly filled out arduous intake documents and requested political asylum. The princess sat in a holding area for three days while Jason desperately called from a nearby hotel to get a status update. On the third day, INS called and informed Jason that she was free to go. They stayed in Chicago one more night in order to book flights to their end destination—Las Vegas.
A week before Jason left Bahrain, an officer from his command called him to the naval base. The officer said, “You know that higher command hates these motherfuckers (Bahrainis). If you took her, that could start a war here and we could kill them all.”
The officer didn’t know that Jason had already been planning the escape. “I don’t know sir, I’ll give it some thought,” Jason replied. The officer wanted to have another conversation with Jason prior to his leave. That talk would never happen. Jason and Meriam would soon flee the country on their own terms.
The day before Jason’s court-martial, the media storm struck. This was a year since landing with the princess in Chicago. Jason kept their story a secret and waited until the night before his summary court-martial in June, 2001 to go to the media. He only contacted the media to prevent unfair treatment against them from either government. He admits wrongdoing and acknowledges a punishment should be administered for his crimes.
“The Marines were more than fair with me considering what I did.” He took full responsibility for his actions, an act that probably spared him. The judge demoted him from lance corporal to private, assigned him 45 days of hard labor, and ordered forfeiture of pay. All the charges were later suspended. Jason was only demoted to private first class.
Jason has been featured in People Magazine five times, as well as the Marine Times, Harpers Bazaar, Us Weekly, T.V. Guide, 48 Hours, and has appeared on Oprah, The View, and numerous local news and radio programs.
One that sticks out in his mind is Oprah. “I don’t care for her or like her. I was told if she makes a mistake, don’t correct her.”
The coolest person he met was Barbara Walters. “She sat down and talked to us like normal people before and after the broadcast.”
People would recognize the couple in public for years after the media attention. Although the attention has significantly died down, he still gets stopped and asked if he is the Marine who married the princess. Now a family man, he shys away from the attention. He has a beautiful wife and child, and that’s where his focus lies.
The movie came out in February of 2001 and created the most highly contested bidding war in television history. “It was weird watching the movie. At the time, I hung out with the star of the movie, Mark Paul (you know him as Zack from “Saved by the Bell”). Standing behind the camera watching them film was surreal. The overall story behind it was accurate, but budget and access to sites made it a little cheesy.” At the time, the movie wasn’t about making a blockbuster; it had to made quickly to draw congressional attention to Meriam’s situation. It was important to safeguard and prevent her deportation to a country that despised her.
The fairytale flamed out a few years after they married. The last time they saw each other was in June, 2009, at divorce court. The princess and the Marine exchanged pleasantries and went their separate ways. Jason doesn’t know the whereabouts of Meriam today or what is going on in her life. Meriam did end up getting her green card prior to the divorce being finalized. She is rumored to be in the Las Vegas area and was unreachable for this interview.
Looking back, Jason remembers the Marines he served with and considers them brothers for life. “That’s the best thing that came out of this whole experience.” Jason Johnson resides in Las Vegas, Nevada, today. He still follows the Marines, meddles at the gun range, and strives to be a great father.
Image courtesy of web2.hallmarkspiritclips.com