July 17, 2004. Life couldn't have been better for Ryan and Haley Dennison. Their marriage culminated a courtship that began their second year at West Point.
"We had the same class together," Haley recalled. "He was pretty dreamy across class. And my friend actually encouraged him to ask me to ballroom dance lessons."
They would become what one friend at the academy called a "Hollywood couple." The fairy tale continued during their Mediterranean honeymoon, but with wars raging on two fronts, both were soon preparing for combat deployments: Haley to Afghanistan and Ryan to Iraq with the famed 82nd Airborne Division.
"At the time, that was the height of 'The Surge' over in Iraq," Haley said.
Her Worst Nightmare
Haley's fears became reality less than three months into Ryan's deployment. Her commanding officer brought her the news at their forward operating base in Afghanistan.
"I came in and he's seated and there's a box of Kleenex and the chaplain's in there," Haley recalled. "And he sat me down and said just openly, directly 'Ryan's been killed in combat.' He said he had been killed by small arms fire."
Haley prepared to head home immediately, but she was in such a remote part of Afghanistan and the weather so bad that it took her 10 days to make it back to the States for Ryan's funeral. She went from being a soldier to a grieving widow.
"Just seeing him underneath the flag, it was just very surreal so that I couldn't believe this was happening," Haley said.
Capt. Ryan Dennison was laid to rest with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, November 29, 2006.
Haley had discovered the last entry in a journal that Ryan had kept in the weeks leading up to his deployment. It read:
"I'm so thankful God has blessed me with so much. If catastrophe strikes in Iraq, I will still feel so very blessed because I have lived the equivalent of four men's lives in 24 short years on this planet. I owe it all to God, my Father. He blessed me with wonderful friends, family, parents to adopt me and most of all, my beautiful wife, my companion, my very best friend."
The Army gave Haley the option of staying home, but in two short months, she headed back to Afghanistan, put on a brave face, and completed her deployment.
"I thought it was important to show my soldiers, and to others, and even myself, to be honest, that when you get knocked down, how are you going to respond? You get back and continue," Haley said. "God still had a purpose for me."
Haley performed so well that she was selected to serve on Gen. David Petraeus's staff in Iraq. By the time her second combat tour ended, she had been promoted to captain and earned numerous awards, including two Bronze Stars.
A Greater Purpose
But God's purposes for Haley extended beyond advancing her military career to healing the wounds of loss.
During her tour in Iraq, an infantry captain named Dave Uthlaut approached Haley during a chance meeting more than two years after Ryan's death. Dave had known Ryan from their days at West Point.
"He recognized my name and he had heard of Ryan's death and he came up to me and said, 'I'm so sorry to hear about Ryan,'" Haley said. "You know (it was a) 'How are you doing?' kind of a thing."
Their relationship began as purely professional, but a friendship developed and they found themselves praying for each other in the war zone.
"I certainly thought she was beautiful, but I certainly wasn't trying to cross that line initially," Dave remembered.
"It was really difficult to even allow myself to think like that again with another soldier that I was just praying with not too long ago for being in direct conflict and being shot at every day," Haley said. "But I think God placed him in my life at that time for a reason."
That reason became clear when they discovered they had fallen in love. Before long, they were introducing each other to family and friends. They also received the full blessing of Ryan's parents, and on May 24, 2009, Dave and Haley were married.
"God has put these feelings in my heart," Dave said. "And everything about our relationship, from the time we started until now, has felt right and that we're good for each other. She understands a lot of things that I've been through. I try to understand a lot of things she's been through as well."
The Uthlauts now have two sons and Haley is out of the Army serving as a full-time wife and mom.
Still, Ryan's memory is never far away. She and Dave honor him with pictures in their home and Haley helps raise money for a scholarship in his memory.
"Looking back, you know, 15 years, I wouldn't change anything," Haley said. "I definitely wouldn't change God's will and I think that's what's played out here."
"It's definitely been hard, but it's also been beautiful," she continued. "I wouldn't change the time I had with Ryan. I cherish it and I cherish the memories, but I'm also happy with my life now."