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Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2006 02:33 pm

Rules of engagement

Early deployments have soldiers tying the knot sooner

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Lisa Verdick, a schoolteacher in Bloomington, says she and her fiance Jonathan Penner, decided to move up their wedding when he recieved orders to deploy to Iraq.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LISA PENNER

Jonathan Penner, of Bloomington, had five weeks of inactive-reserve duty left in the Illinois National Guard when he abruptly discovered that he was being deployed to Iraq. Complicating matters, he had just popped the question to Lisa Verdick, his girlfriend of four years.

“We knew it would be so much better for our relationship if we were married before he left,” says Lisa, who originally planned for a one-year engagement, “so I said, ‘Let’s do it now!’ ”

As Jonathan prepared to depart for Iraq, Lisa was left with the daunting task of compressing a year of wedding planning into two weeks.

“I’m not the kind of person who wanted a big church wedding with a white dress,” Lisa says. “We decided to have a small wedding in my parents’ back yard.”

With the help of friends and family, Lisa, a 23-year-old elementary-school teacher, cut corners in every way. She opted for word-of-mouth invitations rather than formal mailed ones, and neighbors helped decorate with their own flowers so Lisa did not have to order extravagant arrangements from a florist.

“Because of my situation, it was really easy to get people to help,” she says. “People really clamp down and get to work when time is a factor.”

In the time most couples spend deciding on a wedding date, a location and a budget, Lisa packed 90 people into her parents’ back yard for her May 2005 wedding. Seven days later, Jonathan left for Iraq.

Planning a wedding can be a lengthy and stressful process for any couple, but it becomes even more difficult for military couples during the ongoing war in Iraq. The average civilian engagement lasts 16 months, with eight to 12 of those months devoted to wedding planning. Soldiers do not have the same flexibility when preparing to walk down the aisle, and, compared with forces in previous wars, the current military is smaller, meaning more repeat tours overseas.

“We did not see such quick engagements in the Korean or Vietnam wars,” says Dennis K. Orthner, professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has studied military relationships for 29 years.

“These were long wartime events, but they had shorter deployments than we do now.”

Julie Levy never got her dream wedding. Ever since she was a little girl, she had envisioned a traditional bridal gown, live band, sit-down dinner, and church full of friends and family. She and her fiancé, Matt Wright, were set to be married the next fall. Her dream was slowly on its way to becoming a reality. Then, in early November 2004, the phone rang.

Matt was a member of the Indiana National Guard, and his unit was being deployed to Iraq in February or March. The couple had already hired a wedding planner and booked a location, reception hall, florist, and caterer, but now they had to scramble to reschedule. Scouring the calendar, they managed to find a new location and ordered invitations for a new wedding date of Jan. 11. Then, just after Thanksgiving, the phone rang again.

Matt’s deployment date had been moved up to Jan. 8 — three days before their big day. Determined to tie the knot before the deployment, Julie and Matt planned yet another wedding, this one to take place in just two-and-a-half weeks.

“The most stressful part about those weeks was knowing that I was leaving for a year and a half,” Matt says. “I just wanted to get everything together to make it as easy on her as possible.”

At the wedding, the initial guest list of 200 had dwindled to 25. Despite her trepidation at Matt’s impending departure for Iraq, Julie still feels that it was the best day of her life.

“As much as I wish I had that dream wedding, it made me realize what was important,” she says. “All that other stuff was just window dressing. The most important thing was when we said ‘I do.’ ”

Matt agrees that bumping the wedding up nine months was the right decision. “Being married while deployed was a blessing,” he says.

Orthner worries that many couples who rush into marriage and then immediately separate are complicating their relationships.

“The first year is the real challenge. It is an absolutely critical year; more couples separate during their first year than any other year,” Orthner says. “An extended period of separation only complicates things and creates more stress. I have talked with couples who do that, and it is not pretty.”

One year of building a stable relationship without separation is the single most effective factor for a strong marriage, he says.

Soldiers now have more incentives to tie the knot before deployment. In 2003, the year the U.S. invaded Iraq, President George W. Bush increased the Family Separation Allowance to $250 a month, up from $100 for soldiers claiming dependents. Also, reenlistment bonuses also were raised.

Many spouses point to other advantages.

“Mentally, there is something to be said when you can say ‘my husband’ or ‘my wife,’ ” says Julie Wright. “Also, if something would happen, the military would not tell me if I was just his girlfriend. It is very important that, God forbid, if something happens, they call me first.”

Lisa Penner agrees: “Being a wife is much easier. You have all these extra benefits and rights. If I were just his girlfriend, he would have a huge problem getting leave, as well.”

On the other hand, accelerated marriages can have an adverse effect when one spouse is away at war. The Defense Manpower Data Center has reported that the number of divorces among active-duty soldiers tripled between fiscal years 2002 and 2004.

Retired Navy Chaplain Victor Smith has counseled soldiers for 30 years, including a combat tour during Vietnam. He has witnessed firsthand the pressure and stress placed on relationships during war.

“War can bring about irrevocable, unexpected consequences to a relationship, and then you have to think about the kids as well,” Smith says.

During his two tours in Iraq, Sgt. Joe Broullard, of Elk Grove Village, Ill., watched his marriage disintegrate. He had been married for a year before being deployed. He found that everything had changed when he came home after 13 months.

“It was hard because I was never home,” says Broullard, who was deployed with the 82nd Airborne in March 2003 and again in December 2004. “Being deployed all the time, you cannot help but grow apart from each other. Even when you are back, you’re always out training.”

Broullard and his wife separated and divorced soon after he returned from his second tour, the next summer. He witnessed the breakups and divorces of several others in his unit as well. The soldiers whose marriages seemed to be least affected were older or had been married longer.

“We were both so young,” he says. “People change so much in a year’s time, even under normal circumstances. You come home from combat, and you are not the same person anymore. She was different, and I was different.”

Although Orthner acknowledges that war is often the downfall of a military marriage, he is not entirely convinced by the divorce statistics. He says it is unusual for numbers to experience such a substantial change in such a short period of time.

“There is always a two-year lag,” he says, “which means those marriages were in trouble before the war. People marry and often divorce after they leave service, not during, as the numbers suggest.”

Orthner suspects that the Army changed the way in which it records its figures during the same time. However, Army statistics show that the military divorce rate is finally back to 50 percent, the same as the national average.

Rushed wedding planning can also put stress on a relationship. University of Southern Mississippi senior Brittany Villarreal, originally from Champaign, Ill., had planned a September wedding after her boyfriend, Justin King, proposed on Valentine’s Day, but the couple soon decided to bump up the wedding to this June when they learned that Justin’s Army battalion would be going to Iraq around the same time. With the stress of Justin already being away at officer training school, the rush seemed like a great idea to bring them back together.

Justin was only back on select weekends, so Brittany and her mother got to work planning the wedding. She never anticipated how nerve-racking it would be to have just six weeks to plan a wedding.

“I’m sure he would have helped me plan the wedding, had he been here,” Brittany says, “but I don’t know how much he really would have wanted to help. Most guys are not really into that kind of stuff. Planning a wedding just seems more like a girl thing. I do not think he cared about what flowers we used or what the cake looked like.”

Brittany ended up taking a semester off to devote more time to the wedding plans. She maintained her part-time job and was often away from home when Justin called for updates. The lack of communication caused several fights between them.

Once they butted heads over his uniform. He wanted to wear his dress blues to the ceremony. She did not want that.

“That was the one thing he would not let down, so I gave in,” Brittany says. “I just wanted it to be a casual beach wedding, and it ended up being more formal, but it is not a big deal now. It is what he wanted, and I know he would have regretted it if he did not wear it.”

The couple settled their differences, and, with the wedding only weeks away, Justin made a shocking discovery. His contact had given him the wrong information. His unit was not going to Iraq in the fall.

They had rushed the wedding for nothing.

Still, Brittany contends, they are happy with their decision. “We were just ready for the long distance to end. Had we planned a wedding in September, we would have been fine. We were both ready to make the commitment.

“When he goes to Iraq, we know we can handle being apart. Now we just have to face a whole new world of unexplainable stress and worry. It will be hard, but I have just had to throw myself out there, and it has been great so far.”

Alex Hedlund is a writer who lives in Urbana.

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