Newlywed Sarah Stewart Velmont '97 heads off to Iraq as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves.
by Wrexie Bardaglio
This is a modern twist on a classic wartime tale: A couple is engaged to be married, and then the orders arrive for the soldier's imminent departure to a war zone. Only this time it is not the man who is being sent to the battlefront. It's the bride-to-be, and her departure is scheduled almost immediately, well before their planned February 2005 wedding day.
On an early October afternoon, five months before their scheduled nuptials, Sarah Stewart '97 married David Velmont in a park near her Wildwood, Illinois, home. It wasn't what she'd planned -- she wore white slacks and a sleeveless white sweater topped by a dusty pink cropped jacket, instead of the beautiful, traditional dress she'd picked out. And there were only 8 guests, including the pastor and his wife, instead of the 100-plus planned for the February day -- but she isn't complaining. "The sky was blue; it was sunny and beautiful," she says. "We had an intimate ceremony with just our immediate family members present. It was a perfect day, and I wouldn't trade it for the world."
Sarah Stewart Velmont is not the complaining type. She's positive and outgoing, and the memories of that perfect day will surely sustain her in the months ahead. Less than three weeks after their wedding ceremony she would be leaving her new husband for several weeks of stateside training before her deployment to Iraq. There, as an army reserve member of the 331st Adjutant General Unit, she would assume her duties as a postal operations specialist -- a far cry from her job as a speech and language pathologist for Community Consolidated School District 46 in Grayslake, a job she loves.
How did this IC speech-language pathology major, who earned a master's degree in the field at Ohio State University and adores working with children, get to this point in her life? "Being an army reservist was not even a remote consideration when I was an IC student," Sarah muses. "What I thought about then was riding my mountain bike and going down to the Commons to drink coffee."
But the events of September 11, 2001, changed her. The attacks triggered frustration, anger, and a desire to help. In September 2002 she enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves. Her decision to enlist wasn't unprecedented in her family: generations had served in the military. Among them was her father, Richard Stewart, who had been a Green Beret in Vietnam during the 1970s.
"Dad really helped me prepare for Iraq," Sarah says. "He shared his Vietnam experiences with me and gave me an idea about how things would be. He told me I'd smell bad, suffer from a lack of sleep, and do duty I'd never imagined I could do. He said the biggest enemies would be boredom and a feeling of loss for the daily activities I enjoyed. He also said that when I come home and hear people complaining about things, it will seem really petty. I'll probably wonder why people grouse about bad traffic, and be acutely grateful for hot showers."
Her father's insights would no doubt prove helpful. "I'll have to go from a fun and creative job working with kids to being hyper-vigilant and completely task-oriented," Sarah says. "I'll have to get used to wearing about 40 pounds of combat gear. I'll be issued a desert camouflage uniform, a five-pound helmet, and an eight-pound flak vest. I'll have a gas mask and a nine-pound M-16. And brown suede combat boots." That comment triggers a grin. Her husband, she laughs, sup ports her military service: "He says, 'My wife wears combat boots, and that's cool.' "
David, a financial analyst with a company that manufactures health care products, has always been supportive of Sarah's desire to serve. When asked how he feels about his wife's deployment to Iraq, he is serious and fierce. "I am really, really proud of her," he says, "and I wish I could be with her, helping her out and helping the country out." It all seems a little surreal to him as he tries to express the impact his wife's absence will have. "It's a little surprising to me, and maybe I have blocked it out. Going forward, well, boy oh boy, it's going to be tricky to figure things out. I may have to fine-tune my letter writing skills, as we don't know yet if she will have e-mail."
Sarah on her wedding day with David and family members
Distance isn't a new challenge for them; they had practice being apart during Sarah's basic training in the summer of 2003, and before that as well. They met in January 2000 when Sarah was teaching in rural Illinois. The following summer she had an opportunity to set up a voice and swallowing clinic for an otolaryngology practice in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and a period of long-distance dating ensued. "I'd probably still be in Indiana if I hadn't fallen in love," she remembers. "But I moved back to Illinois to be with David, as his job was based there."
This time David and Sarah will be separated until she returns in 2006. Sarah's service in Iraq meant some quick revisions to the couple's plans, but they still intend to have a big wedding ceremony when she returns from duty. "I ordered the dress, and I want to wear it!" she says. "But I can't tell you more about it, since David hasn't seen it yet."
Her life is very distant from the days of exploring Ithaca's cafés and enjoying the outdoor scene, but she believes that her IC education helped her to be curious, passionate, and involved. Certainly those qualities will serve her well as she faces this next big venture. "Marie Sanford in speech-pathology was my adviser," she says, "and she made sure I challenged myself. She never let me take the easy way out. And Liz Begley and Chris Cecconi made a huge impact on me as well. They all encouraged me to do things I never thought I'd do. I took classes that weren't required for my major, such as Medical Ethics and Psychology of Women. I was always active in the IC community -- I played intramurals and was a lifeguard and a member of the President's Host Committee, among other things -- but my mentors impressed upon me that it was important to seek a balance in my life, to get into the larger community as well. I volunteered for Loaves and Fishes and worked for Creative Catering."
When asked about what's to come in her immediate future, Sarah grows a little quieter and her voice is a bit less lively. "I know things over there will haunt my dreams and change me. I don't know how safe it will be. Will it be totally hostile, or will I never hear a gunshot? I really don't know what to expect. But David and I have faith, and that helps us both."