Utah student veteran Jen Comer transitions to a new life
Four years of academia prepared Jen Carver Comer for this moment, but it's a bit intimidating, nonetheless.
On her 29th birthday, less than a week after donning a cap and gown with thousands of other graduates at Weber State University, Comer is going before a juvenile court judge to offer her opinion about a young offender's prospects.
"I'm a firm believer [that] you go in the room being the smartest person there, knowing everything about the case," says Comer. "So I've done my homework."
Comer, an Army veteran who did two tours in Iraq, is finishing up an internship at the Farmington Bay Youth Center, where she has been a youth worker for several months. It's in that role that she is going before the judge.
The internship is one of her last student projects; this summer she'll finish a senior capstone course and another internship at WSU's law enforcement academy, completing dual degrees in social work and criminal justice. (WSU allows students to "walk" at commencement in the spring because there is no ceremony for those who finish school in summer).
And then she'll be ready for the next chapter, studying for a criminal justice master's degree at WSU in the fall and beginning work on a master's degree in social work in summer 2014.
While her own background of childhood abuse and family dysfunction gives her a soft spot for troubled teens, she also wants to teach law enforcement candidates about cultural sensitivity and diversity.
The two degrees equip her well, says Bruce Bayley, a criminal justice professor and one of Comer's mentors.
"She'll be a conduit between those two worlds that often don't get along very well," says Bayley. "She'll be a mediator."
'I protect people' • T.J. Carver, Comer's 5-year-old son, holds up the WSU medal on a purple ribbon that his mother gave him.
They wave and grin at each other, as T.J. sits in the Dee Events Center arena seats with his stepdad, Daniel Comer, 2-year-old stepsister Scarlett and grandpa Bill Comer and his partner, Shereen Strong.
Comer is down below, in a crowd of hundreds of graduates of the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences. Two red, white and blue cords signify she is a veteran, like many of the criminal justice majors.
Daniel Comer, whom Carver married in August, beams as he watches her walk up to symbolically collect the first degree, then the second one.
Comer is grateful for their blended family's support, but disappointed that her father, who lives in Washington, did not come. She is the first in his family to graduate college. The first in her mother's, too, but they no longer speak.
"I about lost it when they had the families stand," Comer says, describing the moment during commencement when families are recognized for their support.
After commencement, she flashes open her graduation gown to reveal a short black sheath dress. Her spike heels are red sateen with black lace.
To celebrate her graduation, birthday and Mother's Day, Comer is getting a ninth tattoo.
It will be a pair of angel's wings that look made of iron, with blades in place of some feather tips. A bullet hole will pierce the place on her back directly behind her heart.
"I'm the protector," she says. "I protect people, I shield them. Basically, I take the brunt of it."
'I didn't think I could do it' • She is reflective this afternoon, hours after graduation, considering her long road from the Army to likely graduating with a GPA in the neighborhood of 3.30.
A native of a small town in Northern California, Comer left it at age 18, barely out of high school, and joined the Army.
Two tours in Iraq and a broken marriage later, she was 25 when she settled in Utah so her 2-year-old son could be near his father's family.
The first two semesters almost killed her ambition.
"I didn't think I could do it," Comer says. "I really just wanted to quit. I didn't think I was smart enough."
But Charlie Chandler, director of WSU's Veterans Services office, recognized her leadership skills and helped her rediscover her strengths.
Comer is tearful as she recalls, with gratitude, Chandler's kindness and that of four professors whom she credits with molding her.
Corina Segovia Tadehara, a social work professor, helped Comer learn about herself in what Comer remembers as an "emotionally draining process."
It was in one of her first classes with Tadehara that Comer created a ceramic mask that she carries today in her Jeep; her son, T.J., wants to hang it on his wall.
She painted the outside red, white and blue and adorned it with symbols of her life to that time, journeys across the world and little-boy toys.
She painted the inside in camouflage colors, including a silhouette of a soldier kneeling before a battle cross, symbolizing a fallen soldier.
"On the inside, I'll always be a soldier," says Comer. "And you always remember the ones you lost along the way."
She credits Bayley and Jack Rickards, director of the law enforcement academy, with teaching her diplomacy and tact.
Steve Vigil treats her like a colleague as she finishes her last projects with him, empowering her to be the professional she has trained to be.
"I literally had an epiphany with him," she says. "He brought me full circle."
Comer, says Tadehara, does not give herself enough credit.
"Ultimately, she gets all the credit. We were just sounding boards, in her corner," Tadehara says. "She has so much going for her. I don't think she always sees it."
A year in a Utah veteran's life
As part of an American Homecomings series, The Salt Lake Tribune has followed Iraq veteran Jen Carver Comer as she studied, served on the student senate, worked at the veteran center, raised her son and remarried during her senior year at Weber State University. See the story archive at http://www.americanhomecomings.com/category/veterans-stories/jen-carver/.
Find more profiles of veterans adjusting to civilian life at AmericanHomecomings.com, a collaboration of Digital First Media newsrooms across the country.