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Military spouses turn to education for survival

Aug. 23, 2004

By ADRIANA ABUNDES-BALLESTEROS, contributor

The war in Iraq consumes every waking moment for students who have spouses overseas.

For Kristin Zastoupil, a graduate student from Celeste, the war has been a strain.

Zastoupil got married on Jan. 1. Her husband Brendan was deployed to Iraq 10 days later. For Army Spc. Brendan Zastoupil serving his country in Operation Iraqi Freedom meant leaving his wife to do his duty.

He is serving with the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division, Bravo Company. They will be separated for about a year.

"The hardest part of dealing with Brendan being gone is just being alone," she said. "If you're not an independent person with a good support system of friends and family, it can get lonely, which just makes you depressed.

"Since we were only married 10 days before he left, it was hard to jump in and move his stuff, take over his bills -- I was now half of a couple handling an entire household," she said.

Her academic life has also taken a turn.

While her husband was here, she finished her bachelor's degree in public relations at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and started her master's in journalism part-time at Baylor.

"Now that he is gone, I decided to work full time on my master's, just to keep me busy while he was gone," she said. "I wouldn't say I'm necessarily more focused because my focus is on the safety of my husband.

"I'm just more dedicated to accomplishing everything I can while he is gone so I have less to do when he comes home," she said.

Waiting for phone calls

Kristen Mayo, a senior at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, relates to Zastoupil. Mayo's boyfriend, Army Spc. Mitch Foss, is serving with the 4th Battalion Air Defense Artillery stationed in Iraq.

"The hardest thing I have dealt with while my boyfriend is in Iraq would have to be never knowing when he is going to call," Mayo said. "It is especially hard when I know something bad has happened in his stationed area and I don't know if he is alright."

Education helpful distraction

She also said she appreciates her education because it is a privilege Foss is fighting for in Iraq.

Although she feels privileged to be receiving an education, she said her academic has also suffered.

"At first my academic life was hurting, but I realized that I couldn't control the fact that he was in Iraq but I could control my grades and preparing for graduate school," she said. "My grades have gotten better."

Zastoupil said she "wouldn't call his absence an encouragement, just an opportunity to get more classes behind me."

"While he's gone, it's as if I am not really living," she said. "Just finding things to occupy my time, until life really begins.

"A friend told me one day, 'You must have a lot of patience.' But I just responded with, 'No patience is a virtue, and this is something I had no choice in. I like to think I have a lot of time. And when Brendan comes home, life won't be on pause anymore.'"

Zastoupil said she is the most impatient person she knows.

"That's why I am in PR. Things are always go, go, go and it's never the same thing," she said.

Impact on children

Things are going well for Nancy Messex, a University of Texas graduate from San Antonio who is now doing her master's work at the University of Hawaii. Her husband, Terri, just finished an eight-month tour in Iraq and now has returned home.

Messex said that she had it a "little harder than most" because she was not only married and going to school, but she also had a daughter to take care of while her husband was gone.

"The hardest thing for Kylie, our 2-year-old daughter, and me was being away from our family and not being able to pick up and go back home when he left," she said. "I had to stay back and finish school and wait for him to come home."

Zastoupil gave some advice to those who also have loved ones serving overseas.

"Just breathe," she said. "Make sure to eat and sleep because you have to live even if you feel like it's in slow motion.

"Whether you're like me and you monitor what is going on in the media or you have another occupation, don't let it consume you."

She also said to stay busy and keep your family and those you love close to you for support during the hard times.

"And if you just can't take it anymore, give me a call," she said. "We can lean on each other."