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Wives balance studies, military men

Amanda Michaels | Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Relaxing in a booth in LaFortune with textbooks and notebooks piled beside her, Dayna Dantzscher looks like a typical Notre Dame student taking a break between classes.

Only the set of etched dogtags she wears around her neck hints at a part of her life that is anything but the norm.

Dantzscher isn’t just a senior who is 22 years old and lives with friends off-campus. She is also a military wife. Her husband – 21 year-old Sgt. Corbin Cody Dantzscher – is in Baghdad fighting with the U.S. Army. Gone since last August, he isn’t expected to return until late this summer.

Her position is a unique one. Dantzscher is suspended between worrying about midterm grades and the safety of her husband. But she also shares this position with at least one other woman on campus.

Junior Elizabeth Clifton-Lyon, 20, is married to 22 year-old Army Spc. Mark Lyon. Lyon is a combat medic just back from a year serving in Iraq.

Dantzscher and Clifton-Lyon met randomly in a Chinese class and have leaned on each other for support ever since.

“[Clifton-Lyon] has experienced the same feelings I’m experiencing, and someone like that is almost impossible to find at Notre Dame,” Dantzscher said.

Though their stories may be different, both women share the difficulties of leading almost double lives – carefree college students one moment and wives who face real fear the next.

Their stories

Dantzscher met her husband Corbin Cody in their Minnesota high school, where they became friends, and later, when he was shipped to Afghanistan, pen pals. They didn’t start dating until he returned to the U.S. – but three months after they did, in July 2004, he proposed.

The plan was, Dantzscher said, to have a two-year engagement before they finally tied the knot. They went a year, seeing each other as often as her education and his stationing in New York would allow, before he found out he would be deployed to Iraq.

“We just had to do it before he left,” Dantzscher said. “That way, we wouldn’t have to worry about planning a wedding while he was in Iraq, and he would be able to participate in putting everything [for the wedding] together.”

Given his long deployment, there was a lot of pressure to reconsider the marriage, Dantzscher explained.

“Everyone kept telling us that people change in a year, but we knew that we could make it together if we maintained good communication,” she said. “We are very open with one another, and that’s where a lot of military families go wrong. They don’t talk to their significant others as often as they can, and that creates a huge barrier.”

Their wedding was last July 2. Corbin Cody was deployed less than two months later on Aug. 12. They did, however, find time to squeeze in a honeymoon.

“We actually went to Bermuda with his entire family,” she explained, laughing. “It was his grandmother’s 25th anniversary and the trip had been planned for a while, it just happened to fit perfectly with our wedding. Everyone was respectful and accommodating though, knowing it was our honeymoon, and it was great for him to spend time with his family before he went to Iraq.”

Dantzscher has tried to talk to her husband at least every other day on his cell phone since he’s been in Iraq, although she said it was impossible to know where he would be at any time.

“If I can’t get ahold of him, I just keep calling until I know he’s OK,” she said.

In the manner of traditional high school sweetheart tales, Clifton-Lyon met her husband Mark when she was a freshman in a California boarding school and started dating him when she was a senior. By her freshman year at Notre Dame, she was engaged.

They had intended to get married in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart her senior year, she said, but the world had other plans.

On Dec. 27, 2004 – just three days before Mark was deployed to Iraq – the two were wed.

“We had wanted to wait, but since he was getting into the war, he wanted something to keep him going over there,” Clifton-Lyon said. “We threw the wedding together in a few days. Thankfully, his mom used to be a wedding planner, and one of his sisters is a florist while the other is a photographer, so that made life easy.”

While she said she does not regret her decision to get married, Clifton-Lyon said life has been far more difficult than she anticipated.

“I was depressed 364 days out of the year when he was gone. It was the worst time of my life, spent just constantly worrying about him,” she said. “I never gave it much thought, him being in the Army and how that would change things. I just knew this was the man I wanted to marry, and that was his job. I didn’t realize until later that it comes with some prices.”

Because Mark was stationed in a less urban area with little cell phone reception, the couple was forced to rely on handwritten letters to communicate for several months.

“That was a very hard time, because we just didn’t feel connected. You start to have some doubts after you go a month without talking to your spouse,” she said.

Her husband returned in February, and for the first time since their wedding, the two had to adjust to married life.

“I missed him so much and thank God every minute he’s back, but this is the first time we’re really spending time together,” she said. “People sometimes miss the difficult side of marriage, having to live in an apartment together and share space all the time.”

How to deal

One of the hardest things about being a student and a military wife, both women said, is balancing the two worlds.

“It’s a lot easier being a student when he’s gone, but believe me, I would take the hit on the grades just to have him back,” Dantzscher said. “I actually use schoolwork as a way to distract myself from the worry that him being away causes, from thinking the haunting thought that people die over there every day.”

Dantzscher said while it is hard to find anyone who can relate to her situation on campus, her friends have been instrumental in getting her through this time.

“I have a hard time spending a lot of time by myself, because then I tend to think about him more,” she said. “My friends give me something else to focus on, and a vent for my feelings. They don’t necessarily understand, but they sympathize.”

She also said apart from her friends, it was sometimes difficult to find support from the campus in general.

“Support for the war on campus is minimal, and I have a hard time with people making comments in class that are just insensitive. People here may be sympathetic, but they’re almost negligent,” she said. “They see there’s a war going on, see the news, say, ‘Wow, that’s terrible,’ and go on living their lives.”

Clifton-Lyon said her first months back on campus after her marriage were the most overwhelming.

“I was trying to deal with school and deal with fears about my husband at the same time, and no one was around who understood,” she said. “I mean, I could talk to the people who were married, but they didn’t really understand what it was like to be separated for a long time. I could talk to friends in the military, but they didn’t know what it was like to be married. That was the hardest thing, not having anywhere to turn.”

The Notre Dame family, however, pulled together for her, Clifton-Lyon said.

“ND is definitely a community and all my friends came together to help me. My old roommates helped me move into my apartment, and my friends in grad school would cook for me because I just didn’t have time to do anything,” she said. “It was impossible for me to find a balance.”

What next?

If there’s one thing Dantzscher and Clifton-Lyon were reluctant to talk about, it was the future.

Dantzscher speculated about joining the Air Force and her husband going for a master’s degree when he was done with service. Clifton-Lyon, whose husband will leave this month for a year of training around the continental U.S., just laughed.

“You can’t make concrete plans,” Clifton-Lyon said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. When your husband is in the military, you focus on the challenges of every day.”