Five years out of the Army, Weber State student, veteran advocate forging ahead with a new life and a new love.
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Jen Carver is getting married in three days, and the stories she and Erica Yohner share as they speed north from the Salt Lake City airport in Carver's new Jeep Wrangler Unlimited are mostly about men even if they are war stories.
The battle buddies talk about who found whose vibrator in the barracks and about men they've known, such as the Incredible Hulk-like soldier who once gently put a drunken Carver to bed after she tried to smash his head with a towel rack.
Carver tells her maid of honor, Janae Davis, who is riding in the back seat, about a lady-killer friend who seemed to read women's minds. "And he's really good-looking," adds Yohner.
And they talk about Mike Yohner, now Erica's husband. He was in their unit, but they didn't know him well because he was in the motor pool and they were in signal corps. Mike won Erica's heart by opening a bottle of Pinot Grigio with pliers, a screwdriver and a screw.
It's been two years since the veterans saw each other Yohner lives in Medford, Ore., and Carver in Riverdale and they still finish each other's sentences, reveling in the intense memories of 2005, when they were in Germany and Iraq.
"You cannot spend a year with the boys we did and not come out the way we are," Yohner explains after a rush of bawdy tales.
"Every night was a reason to go out drinking," the 28-year-old Carver reminisces, then pauses. "You'd be proud of me. I haven't done that in a while."
"Me neither," says Yohner, 35 and the mother of four. "Who has time for that?"
"Time to be a grown-up," says Carver. She's five years out of the Army and about to marry again, this time to a civilian and this time, far from the emotional high-wire that threatens many military marriages.
'He's that someone for me' • Three nights later, on a warm August evening, Carver is wearing a strapless white gown with a flouncy, full skirt on a hillside overlooking the Ogden Valley as she and Daniel Comer pledge to "give love freely and unconditionally" all the days of their lives.
Charlie Chandler, a retired Army captain and her boss from the Veterans Services office at Weber State University, officiates, advising the couple that no ties are as tender or as sacred.
Four-year-old T.J. Carver is the ring bearer for his mother and new stepfather; Comer's 20-month-old daughter, Scarlett, watches them exchange vows from her grandmother's arms.
Of all the words Chandler speaks as he blesses the couple's union, those about family most catch the attention of the new Jennifer Comer.
"It's more than just starting a marriage between a man and woman," says the bride during a reception at the former sheep farm. "We're starting a family together."
The couple met last summer through mutual friends at a function at Hill Air Force Base, where 30-year-old Daniel Comer is a civilian computer engineer.
"He was just genuinely really nice. He wasn't trying to hit on me. He wasn't making arrogant comments," says Comer. "I've always had doubts about people I dated. I've never done that with Daniel. I've never had a reason."
"There's someone out there for everybody," Comer says shortly before leaving for her honeymoon on St. John's in the Virgin Islands. "He's that someone for me."
'It was one of those things' • Before she met Daniel, remarriage was out of the question for the Weber State University student.
Comer, a senior majoring in social work and criminal justice, came from a broken home in a small California town and joined the Army right out of high school.
"She's had her share of hard knocks," says her father, Dann Butterfield, who lives in Battleground, Wash. He left her mother when Comer was 4 or 5; her mother's boyfriend moved in the same day.
"It was hard. The girls didn't understand," Butterfield says.
When her own marriage fell apart two years in, Comer swore off the institution. "I was the biggest anti-marriage person you could meet."
Comer met T.J.'s father, a native of Ogden, in a sexual harassment class at Fort Campbell, Ky., in spring 2006.
By the end of that year, they decided to have a baby together, in part because he didn't want to die in Iraq or Afghanistan and leave his parents without a grandchild, she says. They married the next July, a few months before T. J.'s birth and were divorced the month he turned 2.
"Our marriage never should have happened in the first place really, but it was one of those things you did," she says.
She blames the intensity of life in the Army. "The military requires you to live your life two years at a time," says Comer. "So you get together, you fall in love, you get married, you maybe have a kid and you get divorced.
"Everything happens so quick, you have nothing but high-strung emotion. That's why so many people in the military have been married over and over again."
Comer says her ex-husband wanted a stay-at-home wife and mother. She wanted to go back to college after she left the Army in 2007.
"I was so cold to him while he was deployed; it was hell on him," says Comer. "I should have been more of a support. But I was glad he left. I had to wait until he was gone to tell him I didn't want to be with him anymore."
Still, she stayed in Utah so T.J. could be close to his grandparents and his father, who left the Army this past spring and returned to Ogden.
'Full speed ahead' • Butterfield hugs his newly married daughter as the DJ plays the song he requested, Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."
The song was playing on the radio at the nurses station the day she was born in 1984, he says. "We took her down there and I told her at that time, 'This is your song, sweetheart.'
"I'll be damned if she didn't live by it," says Butterfield, who relishes telling how his daughter called him and his wife, Patty, on a cellphone from Iraq during a firefight. "We're like, 'Hang the phone up and go hide!'
"She's always been full speed ahead."
That explains, in part, why Yohner, her soldier friend, feels like she's passing a torch.
The two women always talk about being each other's yin and yang, the concept of interdependent opposites from Chinese philosophy.
"She's the white, I'm the black. She mellows me out, I bring her up," as Comer puts it.
But tonight, Yohner believes her friend has a new yang: Daniel, her husband.
"He's that for her," says a tearful Yohner. "It's a good balance. He's what she needs. I see good things for them."
About American Homecomings
Read the first chapter and second chapter of The Salt Lake Tribune's series about veteran Jen Carver Comer.
Find more profiles of veterans adjusting to civilian life on AmericanHomecomings.com, a site devoted to covering the re-entry of members of the military to our communities. The collaboration involves Digital First Media newsrooms across the country, including The Tribune.
About Jen Carver Comer
Age • 28
Lives • Riverdale
College • Weber State University, senior majoring in social work and criminal justice
Goal • Will graduate in spring 2013 and plans to pursue graduate degrees.
Service • U.S. Army 2002-2007, served tours in Iraq in 2003 and 2005.